Monday, August 13, 2012

UNHCR Chief’s Visit to Northern Arrakan (2009)

(This post is direct from the WIKILEAK’s Leak Cables.)

UNHCR Chief Antonio Guterres.
Classified By: Pol Officer Sean O'Neill for Reasons 1.4 (b) & (d)


¶1. (C) UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres' March 7-12 visit to Burma was strictly controlled by the GOB, according to local UN staff. Guterres visited Nay Pyi Taw, Sittwe (Rakhine State), and Myeik (Thanintharyi Division). Guterres met with the Ministers for Home Affairs and Immigration, Foreign Affairs, and Border Areas and National Races (NATALA) as well as UNHCR staff working in northern Rakhine State (NRS). The regime allowed him to brief the UN Country Team, but did not permit him to meet with any diplomats during his visit; GOB officials also denied any abuse of the Rohingya population. According to UNHCR Country Representative Bhairaja Panday, the Minister of Home Affairs agreed to enter into a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the UNHCR, but few specifics were discussed. Panday reported that Guterres directed UNHCR's Burma office to expand immediately its presence and activities in Northern Rakhine State, and Panday expects to receive the necessary additional funding shortly. End summary.

UNHCR to expand presence in NRS 

¶2. (C) In a March 13 briefing to the diplomatic corps, UNHCR Country Representative Panday reported that a significant portion of Guterres' trip focused on UNHCR's work in NRS. Minister of Home Affairs Maung Oo informed Guterres that the GOB has designated his ministry as the lead agency on all matters related to the development of NRS. Maung Oo, who doubles as Acting Minister of Immigration and Population after a recent Cabinet reshuffle, assured Guterres that UNHCR would be permitted to continue its activities in NRS. He reportedly committed to enter into a new six-month, renewable MOU with UNHCR beginning this summer. Maung Oo identified infrastructure, education, water, agriculture, and health as the GOB's five primary development goals in NRS and agreed with Guterres that UNHCR's work should include an increased focus on these areas. While Guterres welcomed the news of the MOU and the expanded scope of activities for UNHCR, he and Maung Oo did not discuss the specifics of the new agreement, according to Panday.

Once a "Rohingya," Never a "Rohingya" 

¶3. (C) Maung Oo acknowledged that "Bengali Muslims" have been in the country for a long time and could not be "sent back," but made it clear the GOB does not approve of the use of the term "Rohingya," which it regards as associated with an insurgent movement. Maung Oo also recognized that UNHCR's protection mandate extends to NRS, but denied that the regime engages in any abuses of the Rohingya population. He reportedly claimed all residents of Rakhine State are free to travel at will and criticized the media for reporting what he described as false allegations of torture and forced labor. (Note: Foreign Minister Nyan Win reportedly echoed this criticism of the media, telling Guterres the press regularly distorted the GOB's record on humanitarian work.) The Home Minister also claimed that Rohingya in NRS were permitted to register and vote in the May 2008 constitutional referendum, but did not indicate whether the same would be true of the 2010 elections.

¶4. (C) Panday said Guterres appreciated the Home Minister's acceptance of UNHCR's mandate, but pointed out to Maung Oo that Burma clearly has "an image problem" and is considered to be isolationist and an abuser of basic human rights. Panday told the Diplomatic Corps that Guterres has decided not to use the term "Rohingya" in his public statements to avoid "unnecessary confrontation" with the regime. UNHCR Senior Repatriation Officer Marc Rapoport told Poloff UNHCR RANGOON 00000164 002 OF 002 staff inside Burma have avoided using the term in the past, but noted he was not aware of a formal UNHCR policy on the matter.

¶5. (C) While he was initially denied permission, Guterres eventually was allowed to travel to Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, where he met with UNHCR staff who traveled from their base in Maungdaw, NRS. Panday reported that the staff provided a power point presentation outlining their activities and a candid assessment of the situation in NRS in the presence of GOB officials accompanying Guterres. According to Panday, Guterres chose to allow GOB officials to attend all of his meetings as a show of openness, and stressed the importance of communicating clearly and consistently with the regime. The GOB denied Guterres request to visit the project site in Maungdaw, citing security reasons, but allowed him to visit a UNHCR site approximately two hours from Sittwe. When asked, Panday was skeptical the regime would permit the diplomatic corps to visit the area in the near future (note: the last such visit to NRS was two years ago).

The Thai Border 

UNHCR's Guetrres & Angelina Jolie.
¶6. (C) According to Panday, Maung Oo described the situation on the Thai-Burma border as "complex." Maung Oo claimed Burmese residing on the Thai side are "economic migrants" and not refugees. Foreign Minister Nyan Win reportedly told Guterres the GOB is working with the Thai Government to resolve problems related to these "illegal migrants." Burmese living in Thailand are welcome to return at any time, Nyan Win told Guterres, but choose not to. The Minister of Border Areas and National Races Colonel Thein Nyunt described his mandate as improving the conditions along the border and invited UNHCR to submit a proposal to strengthen its activities along the Thai-Burma border.

UNHCR's Take Away 

¶7. (C) On the basis of his visit, Guterres concluded that UNHCR must expand the scope of its activities in NRS to meet current needs, according to Panday. Therefore, Panday reported, Guterres directed UNHCR's Burma office to immediately increase its activities in NRS and Panday expects to receive additional funding shortly. Guterres apparently sees an opportunity to expand its cooperation with the GOB and intends to use his visit as a starting point to do so. Overall, Panday said Guterres regarded his visit as a success, despite the regime's strict control of his visit and its refusal to allow him to meet with diplomats or donors in country or to visit UNHCR's hub in Maungdaw.


¶8. (C) UNHCR local staff were clearly pleased with the outcome of the High Commissioner's visit, but they had approached it with extremely low expectations. Since December, they have on occasion expressed concerns that UNHCR would be asked to leave NRS entirely so an agreement by the GOB to allow them to maintain, and even expand, their presence is seen as an accomplishment. Strict GOB control of high-level UN visitors is nothing new, but in Guterres case extended to denial of even an informal meeting with diplomats -- a troubling precedent. The regime's control of the agenda also meant Guterres had no unsupervised contact with UNHCR staff or beneficiaries.