U.S. Vice President Mike Pence took Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi to task on Wednesday, telling the former human rights icon that the country’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims is “without excuse,” and called the arrest and conviction of two journalists who reported on a massacre of members of the persecuted minority group “deeply troubling.”
The comments at a regional diplomatic meeting in Singapore came as Myanmar is telling the world it is ready to accept back the first group of about 2,200 Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh during a military crackdown in northern Rakhine state in 2017 following deadly attacks in the region by a Muslim militant group.
Thousands died during the violence, which included widespread torture, rape, and arson, and drove more than 720,000 Rohingya across the border where they have been living in sprawling refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh.
The Myanmar government has largely denied that its forces committed the atrocities which U.N. investigators, rights groups, and some nations, including the U.S., say amounted to ethnic cleansing, genocidal intent, or genocide itself.
“The violence and persecution by the military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse,” said Pence who made the comments to the state counselor during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit.
He also expressed interest in hearing about the "progress" Myanmar has made in holding accountable those responsible for the atrocities and what the country has done to make it possible for the refugees to voluntarily return home.
Pence also criticized Myanmar’s jailing of two Reuters news agency reporters sentenced to seven years in prison in September for possessing classified government documents while reporting on the extrajudicial killings of 10 Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state’s Inn Din village during the brutal crackdown.
Media advocates and human rights groups say the pair was framed by police officials and convicted on bogus charges in the much-criticized case that many have condemned as a blow to press freedom in the developing country.
“[T]he arrest and jailing of two journalists last fall was deeply troubling to millions of Americans,” Pence told Aung San Suu Kyi. “I look forward to speaking with you about the premium that we place on a free and independent press.”
In response, Aung San Suu Kyi told Pence that “people have different points of view, but the point is that you should exchange these views and try to understand each other better."
“In a way, we can say that we understand our country better than any other country does, and I'm sure you will say the same of yours, that you understand your country better than anybody else,” she said.
Denials won’t make issue go away
Myanmar political analyst Aung Thu Nyane said Pence’s comments signals that Myanmar will now come under even more international pressure.
“The international community wants two things, which are Myanmar’s cooperation with the [U.N.] fact-finding mission and its refusal to accept the impunity of those who committed the crimes [in Rakhine state],” he said, referring to a panel that investigated atrocities committed against the Rohingya, though the Myanmar government had denied its members entry to the country.
The commission issued a report in late August detailing violence by Myanmar security forces and calling for the prosecution of top military commanders on genocide charges before the International Criminal Court (ICC) or another tribunal.
Aung Myo Min, executive director of Equality Myanmar, an NGO that facilitates human rights education and advocacy programs, agreed that Myanmar will face more pressure from the U.S. over the Rohingya crisis, even though Washington has withdrawn from the U.N. Human Rights Council.
“Actually, even if we like the U.S. or not, it is still powerful and can influence U.N. member nations,” he said.
“Myanmar will have more pressure from U.S.,” he said. “While Myanmar is trying to resolve this issue, it would be better to cooperate with other nations instead of denying [what happened]. If Myanmar continues to work to resolve this problem by denying it, then there will definitely be stronger pressure on the country.”
Pence’s exchange with Aung San Suu Kyi came a day after Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad expressed disappointment with Myanmar's de facto leader, calling her response to the persecution of the Rohingya “indefensible” in remarks prior to the start of the ASEAN summit.
Myanmar officials have said that repatriations would get underway this week, though U.N. human rights chief Michele Bachelet, the U.N.’s refugee agency, and human rights groups have called for a halt to the program, warning that conditions in Rakhine state are not yet conducive for the safe return of the Rohingya.
The program, under which an initial 2,200 refugees were to return to Myanmar, will not begin on Nov. 15 as planned, a source speaking on condition of confidentiality told Reuters late Wednesday.
The source said the program would not get underway because none of the Rohingya refugees wants to return to Myanmar.
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have demanded that the Myanmar government accept them as an official ethnic group, grant them full citizenship rights, and set up an international security mechanism to protect them when they return before they step foot again on Myanmar soil.
Reported by Nandar Chann for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.