November 14, 2017
By Simon Cameron-Moore
YANGON (Reuters) – Human rights group Amnesty International poured scorn on a Myanmar military investigation into alleged atrocities against Rohingya Muslims, branding it a “whitewash” and calling for U.N. and independent investigators to be allowed into the country.
More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since late August, driven out by a counter-insurgency clearance operation in Rakhine State that a top U.N. official has called a classic case of “ethnic cleansing”.
Accusations of organized mass rape and other crimes against humanity were leveled at the Myanmar military on Sunday by another senior U.N. official, who had toured camps in Bangladesh where Rohingya refugees have taken shelter.
Pramila Patten, the U.N. special representative of the secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict, said she would raise accusations against the Myanmar military with the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
The military, known as the Tatmadaw, has consistently protested its innocence, and on Monday it posted the findings of an internal investigation on the Facebook page of its commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
It said it had found no instances where its soldiers had shot and killed Rohingya villagers, raped women or tortured prisoners. It denied that security forces had torched Rohingya villages or used “excessive force”.
The military’s self-exoneration came as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson prepared to visit Myanmar on Wednesday for talks with the country’s leaders.
Tillerson and Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of a less than two-year-old civilian administration that has no control over the military, met in Manila on Monday, where they were both attending a regional summit.
With U.S. senators in Washington pressing to impose economic sanctions and travel restrictions targeting the military and its business interests, Tillerson is expected to deliver a stern message to Myanmar’s generals, while supporting the transition to democracy.
Suu Kyi discussed the Rohingya crisis with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during the Southeast Asian summit in Manila.
Guterres, addressing the summit, described the exodus of refugees from Myanmar as a “worrying escalation in a protracted tragedy” and a potential source of instability and radicalization in the region.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also he had an “extended conversation” with Suu Kyi about the plight of Rohingya Muslims.
“This is a tremendous concern to Canada and to many, many countries around the world,” Trudeau told a news conference in Manila.
REDUCED TO RAFTS
While world leaders wrung their hands, thousands of Rohingya remained stranded in Myanmar, on beaches around the mouth of the Naf river, hoping to find a boat to make the short, sometimes perilous crossing to Bangladesh.
More than 200 have drowned making the attempt in the past couple of months and Bangladesh border guards have clamped down on fishermen who Rohingya were paying to take them across.
With fewer boats available, desperate Rohingya have been stringing together rafts from bamboo and plastic canisters. In the past week, some 1,200 people crossed over on such flimsy rafts, according to police.
“They’re still coming, risking their lives, driven by fears of starvation and violence,” Shariful Azam, a police official in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, a narrow spit of land where the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis is unfolding.
The government in mostly Buddhist Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, regards the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi’s failure to speak out strongly over the Rohingya’s plight has widely damaged the Nobel peace prize winner’s reputation as a stateswoman.
Many diplomats, however, believe Myanmar’s fragile transition to democracy after 49 years of military rule would be jeopardized if she publicly criticized the armed forces.
On Friday, the Myanmar military replaced the commanding officer in Rakhine State. No reason for Major General Maung Maung Soe’s transfer was given, but a senior officer with the military’s media department told Reuters the general had no new assignment, and had been placed on a reserve list.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, Katina Adams, said the United States was aware of reports of the general’s replacement.
“We remain gravely concerned by continuing reports of violence and human rights abuses committed by Burmese security forces and vigilantes. Those responsible for abuses must be held accountable,” Adams said.
Amnesty International dismissed the military’s internal investigation and called for a U.N. fact finding mission and other independent investigators to be given full access to Rakhine.
“Once again, Myanmar’s military is trying to sweep serious violations against the Rohingya under the carpet,” James Gomez, Amnesty International’s regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement released late Monday.
Amnesty said: “there is overwhelming evidence that the military has murdered and raped Rohingya and burned their villages to the ground.
“After recording countless stories of horror and using satellite analysis to track the growing devastation we can only reach one conclusion: these attacks amount to crimes against humanity.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May also said in foreign policy address on Monday that Myanmar’s military should be called to account.
“This is a major humanitarian crisis which looks like ethnic cleansing,” she said in a speech in London.
“And it is something for which the Burmese authorities – and especially the military – must take full responsibility.”
(Additional reporting Wa Lone in YANGON, Ruma Paul in DHAKA, Steve Holland and Karen Lema in MANILA and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Editing by Robert Birsel)