Refugees International welcomes U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's acknowledgement that ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people is taking place in Myanmar.
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Myanmar has received a reprieve from formal criticism by a regional Asian group on the Rohingya crisis, but tough talks with the United States await when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the military commander-in-chief on Wednesday.
The members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued a draft statement that failed to mention the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state during the annual East Asia Summit in Manila, Reuters reported.
The United Nations and rights groups have accused the Myanmar military of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in northern Rakhine where a recent military crackdown targeting Rohingya Muslims has forced more than 600,000 to flee to Bangladesh.
Myanmar political analyst Yan Myo Thein said the omission of the Rohingya crisis from the statement could reflect ASEAN’s policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of member states.
“It might also [signal] that the international community is [demonstrating] understanding on Myanmar’s struggle during its transition to democracy,” he said.
“I think that Myanmar might promise to work with the international community, and it is likely that the international community will also work with Myanmar on resolving this problem,” he said.
Nyan Win, spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, downplayed the lack of mention of the Rohingya crisis in the ASEAN document.
“People expected that this subject would be discussed during the summit,” he said. “Actually, the problem in Rakhine is just like fighting between two groups where some people have killed others.”
“That the draft statement skipped over the Rohingya crisis means international leaders accept there is no ethnic cleansing in Rakhine,” he said. U.N. officials and some world leaders have in fact described the treatment of Rohingya as “ethnic cleansing.”
Aye Lwin, a member of the government-appointed Advisory Commission on Rakhine State led by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan noted that State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has been working on implementing the commission’s recommendations and repatriating refugees living in displacement camps in Bangladesh.
“She has said what she will do, and ASEAN must make comments on Myanmar only after waiting and seeing what she does,” he said.
Military in denial
The Myanmar military and government have denied accusations that security personnel burned Rohingya villages and indiscriminately killed, tortured, and raped residents, despite testimony to the contrary by survivors and satellite imagery of the ravaged communities.
They have also denied access to the conflict zone by independent observers to investigate accounts by Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh of widespread abuses by the Myanmar army.
In a report on Monday, the military said it had “abided by laws” during the “security operations” in northern Rakhine state, prompting international rights groups to clan that it is whitewashing ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity targeting the Rohingya.
When Aung San Suu Kyi met U.N. chief Antonio Guterres on the sidelines of the conference on Tuesday, he stressed that the Rohingya refugees should be allowed to voluntarily return to Myanmar and that the government should increase efforts to ensure humanitarian access to the areas affected by violence.
Aung San Suu Kyi later met Tillerson briefly, though the two will have a one-on-one conversation on Wednesday in Naypyidaw to discuss the situation in northern Rakhine and the restoration of peace and stability.
Also on Wednesday,Tillerson is expected to tell Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, to end the violence in Rakhine to prevent Rohingya Muslims from fleeing to Bangladesh, Reuters reported, citing a U.S. State Department diplomat.
Some U.S. senators are now pursuing legislation to impose economic and travel sanctions on the armed forces and their business interests.
Washington, D.C.-based Refugees International called on Tillerson on Tuesday to recognize the Rohingya crisis as ethnic cleansing, a term that the U.S. government has so far refused to use.
“Secretary Tillerson’s visit must be used to recognize the tragedy for what it is, ethnic cleansing, and to pressure the Myanmar government and in particular Myanmar’s military to address the crimes against humanity that are taking place,” said Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, in a statement.
“This trip cannot become an endorsement of the current state of affairs in Myanmar,” he said. “Failure to make strong statements connected to strong actions will do just that,” he said.
‘Terrorists’ handed over
In a related development, Bangladeshi authorities on Tuesday handed over four Rohingya “terrorists” to Myanmar, said Police Colonel Aung Htay Myint of the Myanmar Police Force’s Transnational Crime Department.
Myanmar authorities gave Bangladesh a list with the names of 1,000 people deemed terrorists during a six-day conference on security and law enforcement between the Myanmar Police Force and Border Guard Bangladesh, which began on Monday in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw.
Aung Htay Myint said the two nations will discuss the policy to repatriate Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh and sign a memorandum of understanding when Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali visits Myanmar on Nov. 19.
“After that, Myanmar will accept refugees back by forming joint committees,” he said.
“We have our population list with data and documents from immigration and administrative departments,” he said. “We will accept back the people who appear in our data and who can submit documents that show they really lived in the area.”
Reported by Khin Khin Ei, and Win Ko Ko Latt for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
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Washington, D.C. (November 13, 2017) – On November 15, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will become the highest-ranking official in the Trump Administration to visit Myanmar. His visit comes at a tumultuous time, three months after Myanmar security forces began brutal attacks which resulted in more than 600,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims fleeing the country.
Refugees International President Eric Schwartz said, “Secretary Tillerson’s visit must be used to recognize the tragedy for what it is, ethnic cleansing, and to pressure the Myanmar government and in particular Myanmar’s military to address the crimes against humanity that are taking place. This trip cannot become an endorsement of the current state of affairs in Myanmar. Failure to make strong statements connected to strong actions will do just that.”
Secretary Tillerson has already recognized the immense tragedy of the situation. One month ago, he stated, “We’re extraordinarily concerned by what is happening with the Rohingya in Burma…What’s most important is that the world can’t just stand idly by and be witness to the atrocities that are being reported in the area.”
What remains to be seen is whether, one month on, such statements will be followed with strong actions. Tillerson further stated, “If these reports are true, someone is going to be held to account for that.”
Numerous eye witness accounts collected by the United Nations and human rights groups, including Refugees International, and corroborated by satellite imagery have left little doubt that the reports are true. A recent U.S. State Department delegation reported hearing further accounts of villages burned, Rohingya seeing family members killed in front of them, or being shot as they fled.
The question now is whether those responsible will, indeed, be held to account.
To take full advantage of his visit, Secretary Tillerson should:
Reiterate U.S. calls for the Myanmar government to grant unhindered access throughout the country for humanitarians and the UN fact-finding mission tasked with investigating serious human rights abuses;
Press for safe returns of displaced Rohingya back to their homes in Myanmar;
Demand accountability for individuals involved in planning, aiding, or carrying out grave human rights abuses.
Failure of the government to take such steps should result in targeted sanctions against Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and other senior military leaders and military owned enterprises. Further action should also be pushed with allies and with the UN Security Council including multilateral sanctions and an international arms embargo.
Finally, U.S. engagement and pressure should not end with this visit. Secretary Tillerson should further use his trip to Myanmar to announce the appointment of a Special Representative and Policy Coordinator, with the rank of ambassador, to continue and coordinate U.S. government policy and multilateral actions toward Myanmar.
More than 600,000 ethnic Rohingya people have fled their homes in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State across the border to Bangladesh since late August 2017. The refugees have fled “clearance operations” by the Myanmar security forces and attacks by local Rakhine mobs following an attack on August 25, 2017 by a group of Rohingya militants against some 30 police posts and an army base. The response of the Myanmar security forces has been condemned as grossly disproportionate with the United Nations and numerous human rights groups reporting widespread and systematic burning of homes, shooting of fleeing Rohingya, and mass rapes in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Secretary of State Tillerson will visit Myanmar on November 15.
Refugees International traveled to Bangladesh in late September 2017 and released a report, “Bearing Witness to Crimes Against Humanity: The Forced Expulsion of the Rohingya from Myanmar”.
For interviews regarding Secretary Tillerson's trip or about the Refugees International recommendations, please contact Gail Chalef, Senior Communications Officer, at (202) 540-7026 or at email@example.com.