YANGON – The Thai secretary to an international panel set up by Myanmar to advise on the Rohingya crisis has quit his post, dealing another blow to the credibility of a body meant to demonstrate the government’s commitment to resolving the issue.
Explaining his decision, Kobsak Chutikul, a retired ambassador and former member of Thailand’s parliament, said the panel of foreign and local experts, which met this past week for the third time in the capital, Naypyitaw, had “been kept on a short leash” and achieved little in the six months since its formation in January.
Kobsak said he quit on July 10, but his departure has not previously been made public.
The panel was set up by the Myanmar government and is supposed to advise it on how to implement the recommendations of an earlier commission, headed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, on solving the crisis in its western Rakhine state, which has been riven by ethnic and religious tensions for years.
Kobsak said the panel had been barred from accepting international funding or setting up a permanent office and had been told to conduct meetings online. Representatives of the army have refused to meet the board. A military spokesman did not respond to calls seeking comment.
“Well, what are they doing? Having lavish dinners in Naypyitaw and this and that, flying around,” Kobsak said. “The danger now is that it’s going to divert attention from the issues, give a false impression that things are being done.”
A local member of the panel, Win Mra, the chairman of Myanmar’s National Human Rights Commission, rejected the criticism, saying the panel was getting things done.
“The government is implementing our suggestions and the developments can be seen,” he said, when asked about Kobsak’s criticisms. “You cannot say there is no development.”
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay could not be reached for comment on Friday because his phone was switched off.
Myanmar faced renewed criticism from human rights investigators this past week over the exodus of around 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled a sweeping army crackdown last year in Rakhine that the U.N. has termed “ethnic cleansing.”
Former Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai was chosen last year by Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi to chair the Committee for Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State, as the panel is officially known. Surakiart did not immediately respond to a request for comment on fellow Thai Kobsak’s departure.
While he was not a member of the panel, as the head of its secretariat Kobsak was responsible for preparatory work for meetings, collecting and collating background information and gathering views from interested parties.
The panel suffered an early setback when veteran U.S. politician Bill Richardson, one of five original international members, walked out of its first set of meetings in January, dubbing it a “whitewash” and “cheerleading operation” for Suu Kyi.
After he quit Richardson accused Suu Kyi, a former friend, of lacking “moral leadership.” Suu Kyi’s office said at the time that Richardson was “pursuing his own agenda” and had been asked to step down from the panel.
Myanmar’s security forces have been accused of committing mass rapes and killings during “clearance operations” launched last August following attacks by Rohingya insurgents. The U.N. has called the campaign a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Myanmar denies most of the allegations.
“They have defended the line … which is always that, ‘This is an internal matter, we are handling it, we haven’t done anything wrong, this is a false narrative,'” said Kobsak, referring to the attitude of Myanmar government officials.
Kobsak added that international efforts would be better focused on a new United Nations envoy appointed to the country, Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener, who met senior leaders on her first visit in June.
“To put it in a positive way, I think the task we set ourselves in the beginning with all good intentions can now be better performed by this ambassador, Christine Burgener, and we shouldn’t muddy the message,” he said. A U.N. spokesman in Myanmar declined to comment.
According to two people who said they witnessed the exchange, during talks this past week one panel member, Swedish politician Urban Ahlin, tried to ask a question about giving citizenship to the Rohingya, but was cut off by a minister in Suu Kyi’s office, Kyaw Tint Swe. Ahlin declined to comment, referring questions to Surakiart. Myanmar government officials also present did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Citizenship and rights of Rohingya have been key points of contention during negotiations to return the refugees to conflict-ravaged northern Rakhine. The vast majority of Rohingya are denied citizenship and prevented from traveling freely around Myanmar.
While the government says it has implemented most of the Annan commission’s recommendations, a senior official told Western diplomats and members of the commission in June that a proposal to review the citizenship law would not be possible.