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International Relations

Myanmar accepts UN's help for Rohingya repatriation

Suu Kyi's decision tests shaky relations with military

A soldier at a Rohingya refugee camp. Myanmar's military has kept the U.N. out of the border area used by the ethnic minority to flee the country.   © Reuters

NAYPYITAW -- Myanmar's civilian government has agreed to cooperate with the United Nations to bring back persecuted Rohingya refugees who have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, risking a backlash from the military. 

Under a memorandum of understanding signed Wednesday, personnel from two U.N. agencies can conduct activities for the first time in northern Rakhine State, from which hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled military-controlled security forces. Myanmar's military has thus far denied the U.N. entry to the country's border region.

The move signals an increasing willingness by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the government's de facto leader, to intervene in what have so far been seen as military affairs and risk complicating tenuous government-military relations.

The government invited diplomatic corps to a signing ceremony in the capital of Naypyitaw with representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.N. Development Program. While the memo's contents were not released, it will let the U.N. independently investigate conditions in areas where Rohingya previously lived, according to the body. Should Myanmar's military refuse entry, the U.N. could step up pressure for sanctions on the Southeast Asian country.

A critical step in the process of bringing home the roughly 700,000 refugees in neighboring Bangladesh is recognizing their citizenship in the country, their chief concern. The memo apparently touches on that, but whether it will actually speed up the process remains unclear.

Temporary housing for repatriated Rohingya under construction in Lakhine State.

The U.N. deal marks the latest step by Suu Kyi to push back against the military's reach. At the end of last month, the government set up an independent commission to investigate the alleged human rights abuses in Rakhine, undermining a military probe that found no persecution on the part of the armed forces.

The government is also calling openly to amend the country's constitution, drafted by the military junta in 2008, to more fully reflect the 2011 transition to a democratic system. President Win Myint vowed to amend the charter in his March inauguration speech.

The constitution effectively guarantees the military a powerful, election-proof bloc in government. It reserves a full quarter of seats in both houses of Myanmar's legislature for military members appointed by the commander in chief, who is chosen by the majority-veteran National Defense and Security Council.

Since taking office as state counselor in 2016, Suu Kyi has been expanding her power. March's presidential changeover and cabinet reshuffle are seen as further evidence that she has established herself as the state chief above the president.

The military remains opposed to further democratization that goes beyond the bounds of the current constitution. Allowing the U.N. into the border region and pushing to revise the constitution could prompt further backlash by the military that sees such actions as "improper meddling."

Achieving peace for the Rohingya, a professed priority for Suu Kyi, will be impossible without the military's cooperation. The government is caught walking a tightrope of trying to wrest more control in domestic affairs without ruining relations with the armed forces.

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