I welcome you to this first session of the Partnership Group on Myanmar.
As you will recall, we agreed unanimously at the Ministerial meeting of the Group of Friends last September to reconfigure that forum to better reflect the positive developments on the ground and further broaden the scope of the partnership between Myanmar and the United Nations.
We also agreed to invite Myanmar to participate in our deliberations. When I spoke on the phone with President Thein Sein on 30 March, he informed me that he would send high-level representation to this meeting. It gives me great pleasure to welcome His Excellency U Khin Yi, Minister of Immigration and Population Affairs, and the rest of the Myanmar delegation. U Khin Yi attended the last meeting of the Group of Friends. His presence today is another concrete indication of Myanmar's willingness to engage the international community constructively.
Myanmar is in the midst of a defining phase in its history.
The country’s historic transformation is beginning to be expressed in numerous positive changes through the opening up of its economy to the outside world, the lifting of millions of people out of abject poverty, the promise of new jobs for its youth and the prospect of more meaningful lives for its diverse communities in larger freedom.
The announcement by President Thein Sein of a broad socio-economic programme focusing on the private sector, infrastructure, public services and administrative reform has been accompanied by a series of measures covering the release of political prisoners, the establishment of more political parties, greater civil society activity and the emergence of a robust and active media environment.
These efforts have been welcomed widely within the country and beyond.
However, Myanmar continues to face significant challenges, including those related to the first census operation in more than 30 years, preparations for elections in 2015, constitutional reform, negotiations towards a nationwide ceasefire and the start of a political dialogue as well as the serious inter-religious and communal tensions in Rakhine State and in other parts of the country.
Progress on national reconciliation is at the heart of Myanmar’s inclusive national identity. The efforts by the Government and armed ethnic groups to end their six-decade-long armed conflict are slowly bearing fruit. Over the last year, the United Nations was a neutral third-party observer in various rounds of consultations between the Government’s Union Peace Working Group Committee and the armed ethnic groups. This has helped build greater trust and confidence. In addition to participating in the talks, my Special Adviser has reached out to these stakeholders separately. He has also continuously emphasized that access to humanitarian assistance for civilians affected by the conflict must be a priority and must be scaled-up. The recent violent skirmishes in Kachin between the Myanmar Army and the KIA have ominous implications. My Special Adviser has been in touch with both sides. Unless they step back from the brink and stop tit-for-tat actions, the prospects of progress towards a comprehensive nationwide ceasefire and political dialogue could be seriously jeopardised.
Despite the strong differences that remain, I am persuaded that there is enough goodwill and sincerity on all sides to bring the negotiations to a positive conclusion. The discussions earlier this month between Government negotiators and the National Ceasefire Coordination Team on the part of the armed ethnic groups have produced a draft text of a nationwide cease-fire accord. I urge all involved in the talks scheduled to convene in May to take the steps that will produce a final text ready for ratification. A consistent and flexible position by the Army will be crucial. The United Nations will continue to support the stakeholders as needed and in accordance with the comfort levels on all sides.
In my engagements with Member States, many have inquired about the state of preparations for the 2015 elections. I encourage the independent Electoral Commission to ensure a smooth and credible process. The United Nations is ready to assist and will be touch with the Commission to assess what might be needed.
Recently, the alarming developments in Rakhine and in other parts of Myanmar have highlighted a growing polarization between the Buddhist and Muslim communities that could undermine the country’s reform process. The loss of life and the hardships now facing thousands of displaced persons is tragic, and the Government must be supported in its efforts to address this gravest of challenges. The deliberate destruction and looting of the premises and properties of the United Nations and international NGOs in Sittwe in March was completely unacceptable. These targeted attacks appear to have been aimed at disrupting the smooth conduct of the census, which would damage the interests of the state and affect the utility and credibility of the census as a whole.
The Government must ensure the safety and protection of all civilians in Myanmar, no matter what their religious or ethnic affiliation. This is a solemn duty for any government, and the Myanmar Government must not flinch from taking firm measures to ensure that this is done. I have also been assured by the Government of its commitment to protecting and supporting the United Nations and NGO presence throughout the country.
Given the rising humanitarian requirements in Rakhine, UN agencies, funds and programmes need to re-calibrate their presence and capacity to better serve all vulnerable populations and those most in need. I welcome the President’s support for this effort, which will require wider humanitarian access and better assurances for travel authorizations for aid workers. I urge strong donor support, especially to fill gaps in assistance to internally displaced people. The resumption of operations by Medecins Sans Frontiere in Rakhine must be part of this process.
In the pursuit of the human rights agenda, any impression that the authorities tolerate impunity could generate negative pressures within the international community and among different parts of Myanmar’s population. The opening of an OHCHR Office in the country could help deepen the country’s commitment to accountability. As a friend of Myanmar, the United Nations stands ready to help the Government urgently address the malaise of communal tensions by promoting interfaith dialogue and supporting the implementation of the ‘Action Plan’ that was set up in the wake of communal clashes in June 2012.
Naypyitaw must also resume, without any further delay, its status verification exercise aimed at addressing the statelessness of the Rohingya population, and begin the process of granting citizenship to those whose legal status in the country can be established. More broadly, a unified nationwide appeal by Myanmar’s key leaders against incitement and hate literature and social media messages would help to heal the rift between the communities.
Finally, this month Myanmar conducted a census for the first time in three decades -- a hugely important undertaking for advancing development and reform. The enumeration exercise was not without its problems, especially with respect to the Rohingya in Rakhine and access to people in Kachin State. I encourage the Government to address those issues concretely and ensure that this process conforms with international standards. The United Nations and UNFPA in particular are engaged and ready to assist further.
Thank you again for your commitment, guidance and support. My Special Adviser and I will do our utmost to help this new forum successfully rise to the important challenge before us.
I now invite His Excellency U Khin Yi to address the group.