Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Thursday called for justice and accountability for Myanmar’s Rohingya while a U.S. congressman announced a hearing on the treatment of the Muslim minority group, in the latest signs of mounting pressure on Myanmar to bring to justice those responsible for the violent campaign.
During a two-day visit to Myanmar that ended Thursday, Hunt met with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
He also toured northern Rakhine state, from where more than 700,000 Rohingya were driven to Bangladesh during a military crackdown in August 2017. There he visited a reception center for Rohingya refugees who will be repatriated. and met with Muslims, Rakhines, Mro, Daingnet, and Hindus who live in the multiethnic state.
“What is essential now is that the perpetrators of any atrocities are brought to justice, because without that there can be no solution to the huge refugee problem,” Hunt said in a statement issued by the UK government on Thursday. “We will use all the tools at our disposal to try and make sure there is accountability.”
Hunt will attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week to discuss what his country should do about the Rohingya crisis. Myanmar, then known as Burma, was ruled by Britain from 1824 to 1948.
“Britain can’t act alone,” he said. “We need to act in concert with other countries; we are a believer in the international rules-based order. It’s incredibly important for all of us that those perpetrators face justice.”
During a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, Hunt asked the Nobel laureate to consider pardoning two Reuters reporters sentenced this month to seven years in prison under a state secrets law while reporting on a massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys in Rakhine's Maungdaw township.
“She indicated that the judicial processes would probably need to be concluded before that could be considered, but I did put that squarely on the table as something I hoped she would consider,” Hunt told Reuters.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters at the U.N. on Thursday that the Myanmar government should pardon and free the journalists as soon as possible, Reuters reported.
A U.N.-mandated fact-finding mission that investigated atrocities committed against Rohingya in Rakhine issued a lengthy report on Tuesday detailing violence by security forces and calling for the prosecution of top army commanders, as well as the removal of the country’s powerful military from politics.
Some observers in Myanmar agreed with the fact-finding mission’s call, while others rejected it.
“I think we have to reduce the sector and role of military step by step according to the country’s stability and situation,” said Thein Tun Oo, spokesman for the opposition, army-back Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). “The military chief has said that he will decide this based on the country’s situation.”
Lawmaker Oo Hla Saw of the Arakan National Party (ANP), which represents the interests of the Buddhist Rakhine people in Rakhine state, called the U.N.’s accusations of ethnic cleansing and genocide by Myanmar security forces “baseless.”
“It is a very political agenda and not practical, though perhaps there are some who agree with it,” he said. “[But] we need the military to be involved in our politics to work with us during our transition period over the next five or 10 years.”
“We are experiencing many difficulties and trying to do our best, [so] the U.N. calls for the removal of the military from politics is very dangerous.”
US Congress hearing on ‘genocide’
Myanmar and its military have largely denied atrocities, including killings, torture, rape and arson, against the Rohingya and have defended the crackdown as a legitimate response to deadly attacks by a Rohingya militant group.
Meanwhile, international pressure continues to build for Myanmar to take action against those responsible for the campaign.
The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on Sept. 26 on genocide against the Rohingya.
“Evidence of Burma’s genocide against the Rohingya continues to grow,” said committee chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) in a statement issued Wednesday.
“The administration has tools at hand to hold Burmese officials accountable,” he said. “This hearing is an opportunity for members to examine the latest developments in this crisis and review the action that’s needed to help stop the violence.”
The U.S., European Union, and Canada have imposed sanctions on those responsible for the crackdown on the Rohingya.
Also on Thursday, a group of lawmakers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) urged the U.N. to take action on the report issued by the fact-finding mission and ensure justice for the Rohingya who were subjected to atrocities.
The fact-finding mission’s report “adds to the mounting body of evidence that the Myanmar security forces have committed the gravest of crimes — including genocide — against Rohingya people,” said Malaysian lawmaker Charles Santiago, who chairs the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).
He called on the U.N. Human Rights Council to set up an international accountability mechanism to document the crimes for future prosecution when it meets next week to vote on a resolution that would do just that.
The APHR has already urged members of the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court to guarantee an investigation of crimes committed by the military across the country.
“Western European and Muslim countries are actively working on this ICC issue by interfering with the U.N., and now we have more pressure from the APHR,” said Myanmar lawmaker Ba Shein of the ANP.
On Tuesday, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda opened a preliminary probe into whether Myanmar’s “forced deportations” of Rohingya to Bangladesh could constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.
The ICC decided earlier this month that it has jurisdiction over the alleged crime of deportation because Bangladesh, heavily affected by the flow of refugees, is a member of the international tribunal though Myanmar is not.
Repeat whitewash by Myanmar feared
While rejecting international criticism, Ang San Suu Kyi’s government has set up eight commissions to investigate violence against the Rohingya since 2012 when a communal blowup between Muslims and Buddhist Rakhines in Rakhine state left at least 200 dead and displaced tens of thousands of people.
The most recent independent commission established on July 30 to investigate human rights violations in Rakhine has pledged to conduct its probe with impartiality and to submit a report on its findings to the country’s president in August 2019.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said this week that Myanmar’s commissions to date have all failed to provide credible reports on atrocities against the Rohingya and to ensure they receive justice.
“The U.N. Human Rights Council should act now to preserve evidence and create a path to justice for victims of grave crimes in Myanmar,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in a statement. “The council should not wait for the country’s latest commission, which seems designated to dilute international calls for action.”
Zaw Myint Pe, a member of a previous inquiry commission on Rakhine state led by Vice President Myint Swe, said the country does not need an international commission to probe the issue.
Formed in December 2016, the commission was tasked with examining the events that led to deadly small-scale attacks by Muslim militants in October of that year in northern Rakhine state and making recommendations to avoid similar attacks in the future.
“Our commission and Kofi Annan’s commission did our jobs and released our reports,” he said, referring to another panel chaired by the late former U.N. chief, which called for reviews of the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law that prevents the Rohingya from becoming citizens and an end to restrictions on the Muslim minority to prevent further violence in the region.
“It’s too bad that this international organization [HRW] didn’t read and mention these reports,” Zaw Myint Pe said. “It raises questions as to whether it really wants justice or peace for Myanmar, or whether it’s biased.”
But Aye Lwin, a Muslim leader in Myanmar and a member of the Annan commission, said his panel recommended that an independent investigation be conducted in Rakhine.
“The most recent commission was just formed, but hasn’t done anything yet, so it’s not fair to comment on it now,” he said.
Reported by Kyaw Thu, Wai Mar Tun and Kyaw Htun Naing for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.