Rex Tillerson Tells Myanmar Leaders to Investigate Attacks on Rohingya

16myanmar-2-master675 The New York Times

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson briefly visited Myanmar on Wednesday and urged its two most influential leaders to investigate “credible reports of widespread atrocities” by the country’s security forces against Rohingya Muslims.

In a five-hour visit in Myanmar, Mr. Tillerson met with Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the nation’s military commander, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and head of the country’s civilian government. He urged both to investigate and halt the violence that has driven more than 615,000 Rohingya to flee over the border to Bangladesh since late August. Less than one-third of the 1.1 million Rohingya who lived in Myanmar last year are thought to remain in the country.

Mr. Tillerson called the situation “horrific,” and at a news conference after the meeting said that there had been “crimes against humanity.” And while he said he advised against “broad-based economic sanctions” against Myanmar, he said targeted sanctions against individuals might be called for.

Members of the mostly stateless Muslim minority are still flooding into Bangladesh from Myanmar’s Rakhine State. They bring with them accounts of villages burned to the ground, women raped and children flung into fires. The accounts have been borne out by human rights investigators and, in the case of the villages, satellite evidence.

A senior United Nations official has called the campaign against the Rohingya a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” And on Sunday, Pramila Patten, a special representative of the United Nations secretary general, accused the Myanmar military of systematic sexual violence against the Rohingya, noting that rape is a weapon of genocide.

“The key test of any democracy is how it treats its most vulnerable and marginalized populations,” Mr. Tillerson said in Naypyidaw, the capital. “It is the responsibility of the government and the security forces to protect and respect the human rights of all persons within its borders and to hold accountable those who fail to do so.”

But Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has defended Myanmar’s security forces, saying that there should be an investigation into what caused the Rohingya crisis. “We want to find out why this exodus is happening,” she said in a speech in September.

Given the widespread testimony from Rohingya refugees about what led them to flee, critics have accused the Nobel laureate of disingenuousness.

At the news conference on Wednesday, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi defended her statements, saying, “I don’t know why people say I’ve been silent” about the Rohingya, and suggesting that perhaps what she has said was not “interesting enough” or “incendiary.” She thanked Mr. Tillerson for having “an open mind.”

“An open mind is something very rare these days,” she added.

Last month, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi — who as a civilian leader has no authority over Myanmar’s powerful military, which ruled for nearly half a century — set up yet another commission dedicated to the Rohingya emergency. There are now at least five such panels, and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi presides over most of them.

Yet members of her government admit they have not sent any investigators to Bangladesh to listen to the Rohingya’s accounts. Human rights groups fear that, at a minimum, hundreds of Rohingya civilians have been killed. But with international investigators prevented from freely accessing northern Rakhine, evidence is scarce.

Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, Dr. Win Myat Aye, who is involved in four of the government’s Rohingya commissions, said on Wednesday that he was wary of accusing the military of any atrocities.

Mr. Tillerson, left, with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, on Tuesday in Manila at a summit meeting of Southeast Asian nations. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has defended Myanmar’s security forces against accusations of atrocities.CreditDepartment of State, via European Pressphoto Agency

“We always used to hear that the military was violating human rights,” said the veteran member of the National League for Democracy, whose leaders were jailed and persecuted by the military for decades before they entered a power-sharing government with the army last year. “But we don’t know if these allegations in Rakhine are true or not because I haven’t seen it myself and it’s beyond my capacity.”

On Monday, the Myanmar military released the results of a monthlong internal investigation that cleared the army of any abuses against Rohingya civilians. Instead, the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar armed forces are known, blamed Rohingya “terrorists” for violence in Rakhine.

The latest military operation, like an earlier campaign last year, began after Rohingya insurgents attacked security outposts in Rakhine, killing Myanmar forces.

The Tatmadaw’s internal report maintained that soldiers had not targeted any fleeing women or children, a claim disputed by refugees now sheltering in Bangladesh. The inquiry also said that when shooting suspected insurgents, Myanmar forces made sure to only aim below their knees.

Efforts by the United Nations to scrutinize that first wave of violence last year have been foiled by the Myanmar authorities, who have denied United Nations investigators visas to enter the country.

With many of the Rohingya still making the perilous journey to Bangladesh, rights groups fear that there will soon be barely any left in Myanmar, apart from the 120,000 who have been forced into internment camps in central Rakhine.

On Monday, the spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain said that the campaign against the Rohingya had been “created by the Burmese military and it looks like ethnic cleansing.”

On Wednesday, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in conjunction with Fortify Rights, a human rights watchdog, released a report with allegations of “mounting evidence” of genocide against the Rohingya.

Members of Congress have proposed imposing sanctions on those in Myanmar who have orchestrated the military crusade against the Rohingya. Earlier sanctions were lifted as the military-dominated regime began transferring some power to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.

On Monday, leaders who had gathered for an Asia-Pacific summit meeting in Manila, including President Trump, declined to issue a forceful condemnation of Myanmar for its treatment of the Rohingya.

Human-rights groups have urged Myanmar to end decades of systematic persecution of the Rohingya and to give them citizenship. Although members of the Muslim minority have lived in Rakhine for generations, the official stance in Naypyidaw is that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Last month, the United Nations, which has been accused by Myanmar officials of supporting Rohingya militants, was told that it would be allowed to resume humanitarian assistance to desperate and hungry communities trapped in northern Rakhine. But only a trickle of aid has been allowed in so far.

Meanwhile, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s various Rohingya commissions are continuing their work.

“We are trying our best to find a solution,” said Dr. Win Myat Aye, the social affairs minister. “But so far, there is still no way to solve the problem.”

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