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Politics

Derek J. Mitchell: There is still a chance to solve the Rohingya crisis

Myanmar and international community should seize moment of opportunity

International commentary about the tragedy of the Rohingya of Rakhine State has focused largely on disappointment in Myanmar's iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi's Sept. 19 speech to the diplomatic community, intended to address concerns about the crisis, did little to stem criticism.

Her failure to condemn military excesses, address charges of "ethnic cleansing," and vague reference to "allegations and counter-allegations" riled many.

There is little complexity in the human tragedy unfolding on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Stopping the violence, which has caused an exodus of Rohingya since late August, and ensuring accountability of all rights abusers are essential.

But these are not long-term solutions to the problems in Rakhine State.

A core but overlooked component of Suu Kyi's speech was her plea for international assistance to help address endemic problems there -- a request reiterated by her National Security Adviser Thaung Tun at the United Nations in New York on Sept. 28. Suu Kyi appealed to international envoys to travel to Rakhine State, learn the realities there and work with her government on solutions.

As U.S. ambassador to Myanmar between 2012 and 2016, I traveled to Rakhine State a dozen times for this purpose, as did many diplomatic colleagues. We spent hours discussing the Rakhine issue with government officials, ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya leaders, and civil society representatives, among others.

The Rohingya spoke of citizenship rights stripped over decades, leaving them without state protection and basic human rights.

Communal violence in 2012 led to more than 100,000 Rohingya displaced and confined to camps, unable to access a livelihood or basic humanitarian needs.

The Rakhine, for their part, recalled earlier periods when some Rohingya forebears promoted a separatist agenda in the state.

It is essential to understand this context in trying to find a lasting solution to the tragedy of Rakhine State. The question is how to answer Suu Kyi's appeal for assistance.

The recommendations of the government-appointed advisory commission on Rakhine State, chaired by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, are a start.

Unveiled on Aug. 24, the Annan report addresses components of a solution to the problems in Rakhine State: rule of law, equal protection, border security, economic development, humanitarian access, trust building, and citizenship, among others. Suu Kyi called it a "great and admirable" report, and expressed her commitment to implement its recommendations over time.

Suu Kyi's government has already announced the creation of an official working committee to implement the recommendations, and committed to form an additional advisory body of trusted domestic and international figures.

But more action is required. Myanmar's government should also establish a process to partner with the Yangon-based diplomatic community, international financial institutions and the U.N. to develop a coordinated action plan.

These local players know well the nuances of the Rakhine issue. The government will need their support to acquire resources to follow through on any cooperative plan, as well as for leverage in facing any domestic resistance.

Such a joint action plan should require the government to make certain basic commitments as a foundation for any partnership.

These commitments should include initiating a process for facilitating voluntary return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh; ending any indiscriminate violence and abuses against them; providing common security to all communities to enable freedom of movement and access to livelihoods; guaranteeing international aid agencies access to all in need; and ensuring transparency and accountability for human rights abuses.

In return, international players should commit to increase the level of humanitarian and development assistance. They should consult on and support the government to conduct a transparent and fair process to consider citizenship for Rohingya.

They should provide material assistance to border security, and offer intelligence and other counter-terrorism support to root out any outside groups or networks bent on violence.

They should provide a platform for the Rohingya, the Rakhine and other ethnic groups to air their grievances and communicate their needs.

Friends of Myanmar should work closely with Suu Kyi and the military to convey lessons learned from international experience on the cost of continued oppression and abuse of the Rohingya and other groups.

To help the Rohingya, one must have an informed understanding of the roots of the current impasse and the need for urgent action. Suu Kyi's speech provided an opening on both counts. The international community should accept Suu Kyi's invitation to partner with her government to develop a joint plan of action, and seize this moment as one of not only tragedy but opportunity.

Derek J. Mitchell is senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, 2012-16.

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