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Myanmar's (latest) moment of truth

Amid delays over refugee returns, government seeks long-term answers to crisis

Myanmar's new, 10-member high-level advisory commission, headed by former Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, could provide possible solutions in addressing the Rohingya crisis.

As international pressure on Myanmar intensifies over its handling of the refugee crisis in western Rakhine State, the government of Aung San Suu Kyi is seeking fresh options after attacks by Muslim militants triggered a military crackdown and exodus of more than 650,000 Rohingya refugees into neighboring Bangladesh last year.

It is clear that Naypyitaw realizes that its declared national priorities of peace and economic development have been damaged by worsening global perceptions of the country.

A new, 10-member high-level advisory commission, headed by former Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, could provide possible solutions in addressing a complex political and humanitarian crisis.

The commission is due to hold its inaugural meeting, just as the first refugees to return to Myanmar from Bangladesh are planned to come back under a delicate deal agreed between the two governments.

It comes amid signs that Myanmar's Asian partners are looking to support Naypyitaw even though the country faces criticism and possible sanctions threats in the West, led by the U.S. and EU.

Suu Kyi appointed the panel, called the Advisory Board of the Committee for Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State, in response to recommendations offered last August by a panel headed by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on how to reduce ethnic conflict in Rakhine State. The new committee will hold its first meeting with Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw in coming days. The move will buy some time and provide additional space for the government and Myanmar's military, or Tatmadaw, to work out acceptable and deliverable results of Annan's recommendations. Among the 88 proposals submitted by Annan are those to reform the citizenship process and grant freedom of movement for stateless Muslim Rohingya.

During his tenure as Thai foreign minister, Surakiart adopted a "softly softly" approach toward Myanmar, trying to engage with the then-junta's Prime Minister Khin Nyunt and befriend the Tatmadaw, moves which quickly improved bilateral ties. Various bilateral programs, including increased loans, were initiated between Thailand and Myanmar and helped to end international sanctions that had been in place since the 1990s.

With his regional experience, Surakiart could play a crucial role in building bridges among domestic and overseas stakeholders. His fellow members include former South African Defense Minister Roelof Petrus Meyer, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and the speaker of the Swedish parliament, Urban Ahlin.

There have been concerns whether the Myanmar government and military would implement any of Annan's earlier recommendations. The appointment of the follow-up commission suggests that the authorities have now agreed on carrying out at least some recommendations.

A helping hand

The new advisory board has the urgent task of helping to restoring the credibility of the Suu Kyi administration and military in tackling the Rakhine quagmire. With its appointment, the government has shown it is responding to suggestions made after Annan submitted his report that an independent fact-finding mission of regional experts should investigate the situation.

Other government priorities include giving greater access to local and foreign journalists to report directly from Rakhine. After fierce international criticism of Myanmar's growing crackdown on foreign media coverage, the appointment of former veteran Reuters journalist, Aung Hla Tun, as deputy minister of information, showed the government's desire to work with the media. The outcome of the current trial of two detained Reuters journalists, who have been charged with violating the official secrets act, will be closely scrutinized. As Surakiart and other commission members have said, better access and therefore more accurate reporting from the troubled area would counter the spread of misinformation on social media, and help determine policy priorities.

The government's promised effort to begin the cross-border repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh is expected to continue with the support of U.N. agencies. Myanmar's neighbors can provide valuable lessons on dealing with refugees, for example, Thailand's experience in handling the consequences of the Cambodian conflict in 1980s and 1990s. Naypyitaw could also benefit from studying the lessons regarding the granting of citizenship to minorities in Indonesia and Latin America.

After apparent initial reluctance to engage the help of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in addressing the Rakhine issue, Suu Kyi is showing a more open attitude to the group, now that Singapore has assumed the ASEAN chair for this year. During its previous term as ASEAN chair in 2007-2008, Singapore dealt with the aftermath of the Myanmar's "Saffron Revolution" when the military junta cracked down on protesting Buddhist monks, and it negotiated access for aid groups after Myanmar's devastating Cyclone Nargis in 1988.

The cyclone forced Myanmar to give up decades of isolation and ask for outside assistance. It is to be hoped that ASEAN's relatively new Humanitarian Assistance Center will gain an increased mandate to help administer operations in Rakhine State.

Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia have also initiated community projects through bilateral arrangements with Myanmar involving improving healthcare services and education.

Surakiart is optimistic that about a lasting solution to Rakhine's problems. But he is working against many challenges as he must act as a go-between among the government, the Tatmadaw and regional authorities. It remains to be seen how Suu Kyi will engage with her new advisory board. Time is running out for her government as it manages not only Rakhine, but also economic and political problems.

Recent violence in Rakhine suggests old resentments are now resurfacing between local Rakhine and Burmese Buddhists. The shooting of some seven local Rakhine Buddhists by the mainly Burmese police during a recent protest commemorating the 233rd anniversary of the fall of the Arakan kingdom to an invading Burmese army is a bad omen for escalating intra-communal tensions.

The most pressing issue however is action on the Rohingya crisis and a strong start to repatriation. The new advisory commission's significance will depend on how much support it gains from Myanmar's government and military. Ultimately, prospects for the country's peace and economic development hinge on Suu Kyi's willingness -- and ability to persuade the military -- to support tangible implementation of the Annan recommendations.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, a former editor of the Myanmar Times, is a Bangkok-based commentator and a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University.

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