Surakiart has a Tough Task
The Bangkok Post-Feb 5
The Myanmar government continues to dig itself into deeper trouble over the crisis it created with the Rohingya. Worse, it is rapidly creating an atmosphere of belligerence. There seems plenty of means available to discuss and solve the situation via talks with neighbors and the international community. Instead, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the nation’s military have only become more isolated.
After asking for help from ex-United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, Ms Suu Kyi and the tatmadaw, or armed forces, have failed to put any of his recommendations into effect. Now, she has called on an old Thai friend for help. Former foreign minister Surakiart Sathirathai has agreed to hold a panel, with the assigned task of studying what to do about the points raised by the Annan mission.
It ran into trouble on its first day. A second old friend of Ms Suu Kyi, former US ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson, got into a bitter and acrimonious battle of words with the leader. The initial subject was the absurd arrest and prosecution of two Reuters news agency reporters of Myanmar nationality.
Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, arrested on Dec 12, face up to 14 years in prison under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. There are two problems. The “secrets” involved are army atrocities against Rohingya people. And Mr Annan specifically recommended re-opening travel in Rakhine state, where the reporters were arrested. Apart from disputing this odious legal case, Mr Richardson accused the leader of appointing the Surakiart panel as a whitewash of crimes that the UN calls ethnic cleansing and others have labelled genocide.
Mr Richardson’s angry walkout on an even more incensed Ms Suu Kyi made things worse. It leaves Mr Surakiart, the panel leader, in a dangerous position. Unfortunately, the Thai diplomat — he served in the first Thaksin Shinawatra Thai Rak Thai government — has not made matters better. He claimed Mr Richardson staged the confrontation with Ms Suu Kyi to grab headlines. That is not consistent with the US diplomat’s long background in international crises and hostage negotiations. In any case, the now-disgruntled American’s version of events is being judged in the West as the credible one.
An incident last week illustrated why Ms Suu Kyi is increasingly pilloried. The US news agency Associated Press documented and assembled eyewitnesses to previously reported or suspected mass killings of Rohingya by the Myanmar army. The news agency, with photos and interviews, showed four massacres and five mass graves with 75 bodies. Ms Suu Kyi’s government replied on Friday that there were no massacres, but that the army had killed 19 Muslim terrorists, after which the troops “carefully buried the bodies”.
There is only one point upon which the news agency, witnesses, time-stamped photos and the government all agree: There were no military casualties. To its credit, the army has admitted one mass murder of 10 Rohingya militant suspects in a separate incident. Officers report that four soldiers have been arrested.
Mr Surakiart for the moment has issued several statements that exactly parallel or parrot the Myanmar government and military on the crisis. But if he and his panel are to gain any credibility he must begin immediately to address the many hanging issues. Mr Annan recommended granting Myanmar nationality to many or most Rohingya, repatriating them from Bangladesh and returning their land and belongings. He also called for press freedom throughout western Myanmar.
The Surakiart panel will fail or fall on how it navigates the moral and legal issues involved. Ms Suu Kyi has lost most of her credibility and much of her appeal. Myanmar’s policy of denial will result in loss of prestige, investment and democratic development. The Surakiart panel must step up and retrieve this situation.
(First published in Bangkok Post – https://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/1407530/surakiart-has-a-tough-task)