BANGKOK (AP) — Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Friday began a fact-finding visit to Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state, where the army has been accused of large-scale violence against members of the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority, resulting in destruction of villages, civilian casualties and an exodus of refugees to neighboring Bangladesh.
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi asked Annan to help find ways to resolve long-standing ethnic and religious tensions between the Rohingya and the country's Buddhist majority. The area was the scene of intense intercommunal violence in 2012 that left hundreds dead and drove 140,000 people into camps for the internally displaced.
Annan's visit is his second since his appointment by Suu Kyi in August to head a special commission that will write and present a report of its findings to the government early next year.
The latest outbreak of violence was triggered by attacks on Myanmar border posts on Oct. 9 that killed nine police officers. The identity and motives of the attackers are unclear, but in response, the government began military sweeps, sparking a major confrontation in mid-November when villagers resisted government intrusion. The government has cut off access to the area by aid agencies.
Bijan Farnoudi, a spokesman for Annan's foundation, tweeted that Annan said in Rakhine on Friday that "Security operations must not impede humanitarian access where there is need."
"I'm not saying there are no difficulties," Suu Kyi told Singapore's Channel NewsAsia network on Friday, "but it helps if people recognize the difficulty and are more focused on resolving these difficulties rather than exaggerating them so that everything seems worse than it really is."
Suu Kyi, whose party took power in March after decades of military-backed rule, has been criticized for not acting strongly to curb the violence against the estimated 1 million Rohingya, who face widespread discrimination and generally are not allowed citizenship. Although many have lived in Rakhine for generations, they are often treated as being in the country illegally.
"It's not just Muslims who are nervous and worried," Suu Kyi told Channel NewsAsia during a visit to Singapore. Rakhine Buddhists "are worried too, they are worried about the fact that they are shrinking as a Rakhine population percentage-wise, and of course, we cannot ignore the fact that the relationship between the two communities has not been good and we want to try to make it better," she said.
On Thursday she announced the formation of a new commission to probe conditions that led to the recent violence and "investigate whether existing laws, rules and regulations were observed."
Rights groups are skeptical, saying the commission lacks outside experts and is full of Rakhine Buddhists and ultra-nationalists. A similar commission formed after the 2012 violence had little effect.
"They receive a report, they say they looked at everything, everything's fine, they'll set up some kind of action plan in meetings behind closed doors," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Guess what? Nothing happens."
But hopes are high for the commission headed by Annan, as it's one of the first to involve outside international experts.
"He's lending his credibility to this process, so it's not a small thing that he's doing," Robertson said. "The government has to recognize if they try to play games with this commission, that it'll probably go down on them in a very bad way."