NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar (AFP) – Washington’s top diplomat arrived in Myanmar Wednesday to press civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s powerful army chief over violence-torn Rakhine state, where troops are accused of atrocities against Rohingya Muslims.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s one-day stop in the capital Naypyidaw comes as global outrage builds over an army crackdown that has driven more than 600,000 Rohingya out of the mainly Buddhist country since late August.
While Myanmar’s military insists it has only targeted Rohingya rebels, refugees massing in grim Bangladeshi camps have described chilling and consistent accounts of widespread murder, rape and arson at the hands of security forces.
The UN has said the army campaign likely amounts to ethnic cleansing of a minority that has faced years of systematic oppression.
Tillerson will meet first with army commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing. He will urge a halt to the violence, to make it safe for Rohingya to return and a “credible investigation” into abuses, a senior US State Department official said ahead of the trip.
The official did not comment on whether Tillerson would raise the threat of military sanctions — which US lawmakers have pushed for back home.
“We think Burma (Myanmar) has made a lot of progress in the past few years and we would not want to see that progress reversed because of an inadequate response to a crisis like this,” the official said.
Tillerson will later meet with Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate who has become a punching bag for global rights groups disappointed by her failure to condemn the army or defend the Rohingya against rising Islamaphobia.
Washington say Suu Kyi has a crucial role to play in tackling the crisis but has been careful to focus blame on the army, who Tillerson has previously said he holds “accountable” for violence.
Under Myanmar’s junta era constitution the military still controls some key security ministries, including border and defence, and retains a de facto veto on any constitutional change.
The US was a major ally in the democratic transition that eventually led to Suu Kyi taking office in 2016 in a power-sharing arrangement with the army, ending 50 years of brutal junta rule.
The Nobel Laureate’s supporters says she must tread lightly to avoid provoking an army that could roll back democratic gains at any time.
Tillerson’s arrival comes after the army exonerated itself of any abuses in an internal probe published Monday that denied troops had killed civilians, raped women or used “excessive force” in Rakhine.
Rights groups blasted the probe as an attempt to “whitewash” atrocities by a military with a long history of abuses, especially against ethnic minorities in border regions.
Suu Kyi’s administration has also dismissed reports of atrocities and has refused to grant entry to UN officials charge with investigating those allegations.