A five-day conference on the future of western Burma’s Arakan State got underway in Kyaukphyu Township on Sunday, with thousands of people, including government officials, in attendance.
The Arakan National Conference’s stated aims are to ensure peace, security and development in the conflict-torn state. It is the first gathering of its size in Arakan State for 68 years.
President’s Office Minister Aung Min and the Arakan State chief minister attended the opening of conference, together with members of the state administration and the Union Parliament in Naypyidaw, Buddhist monks, civil society representatives and members of exiled Arakanese armed groups who are in peace talks with the government.
During a speech, Aung Min, the government’s chief peace negotiator, called for ethnic Arakanese people “to collaborate together with other ethnics in the country’s political reforms.”
At the conference Monday, a panel discussed the role of international NGOs in Arakan State, a controversial subject in the region, where aid groups have been accused by the Buddhist Arakanese of bias in favor of Muslims in Arakan State.
“The panelists who have expertise in INGO issues discussed the role of the international organizations and the advantages and disadvantages of them,” said Oo Hla Saw, a leader of the Arakan National Conference Organizing Committee and one of the founders of the Arakan National Party (ANP). The ANP was recently formed in a merger between the Rakhine National Development Party and the Arakan League for Democracy.
Local complaints about international NGOs led to doctors group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) being banned from Arakan State in March. Later that month, riots against NGO and United Nations properties in the state capital of Sittwe led to local and foreign staff seeking police protection and fleeing the town.
Amid concerns of a growing humanitarian crises in the state—where about 140,000 people, mostly Rohingya Muslims, have been displaced by inter-communal violence in the past two years—some aid groups have been allowed to return. The riots were sparked by an aid worker for Malteser International allegedly mishandling a Buddhist flag, and that group has not been allowed to return to the state due to safety concerns.
“Township representatives asked how to deal with those INGOs who have no transparency, have no respect for the locals’ feelings, and discriminate against the locals,” said Oo Hla Saw, who added that the state could not cope without help from outside. “The abandonment of NGOs is impossible.”
Panel discussions were also held on democracy in Burma, on federalism and on the sharing of natural resources and environmental preservation, Oo Hla Saw said. Ethnic Arakanese from all 17 townships in Arakan, one of Burma’s poorest regions, also shared concerns about health and educations needs, farmland issues and electricity shortages, he said.
He said the results of the discussions would be drawn up into a policy statement at the end of the conference.
Ba Shein, an Arakanese lawmaker in the Lower House of Burma’s Parliament, said the Arakanese people were paying close attention to the conference, which will decide upon strategy for the state’s future.
“I believe it will yield good results for the future of the Arakanese, as the participants are both the public inside the state and the exiled Arakanese activist groups,” he said.
On Wednesday, parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann is expected to visit and address the conference, according to Oo Hla Saw.