Tillerson calls for military support for civilian inquiry into 'atrocities'


US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks to the media during a joint press conference with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (not pictured) after their meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, 15 November 2017. Photo: EPA-EFE

The US Secretary of State on Wednesday piled pressure on Myanmar's military by asking them to cooperate with the civilian government, which he called upon to undertake a “full and effective independent investigation." 

“In all my meetings, I have called on the Myanmar civilian government to lead a full and effective independent investigation and for the military to facilitate full access and cooperation,” Mr Rex Tillerson said.

Tillerson said it was the "duty of the military to help the government to meet commitments to ensure the safety and security of all people in Rakhine State." 

On arrival in the capital Nay Pyi Taw, Tillerson headed first for a meeting with Myanmar's army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing before he met State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

A posting on Min Aung Hlaing’s Facebook page said Myanmar’s military chief briefed Tillerson about the “true situation in Rakhine,” the reasons why the Muslims fled, how the military was working with the government to deliver aid and the progress made for a repatriation process to be agreed with Bangladesh.

Tillerson condemned the terrorist attacks, but said any response by the security forces needed to avoid to the “maximum extent possible harming innocent civilians.”

An internal investigation by the military into the allegations of atrocities that was released this week has been derided as a “whitewash” by human rights groups.

Tillerson said he was against any broad-based sanctions against Myanmar, as pushed for by many US senators, "because we want the country to succeed."

But he said if there was credible and reliable information on abuses by individuals they could be targeted by sanctions.

Tillerson said the United States would work with partners so that those responsible for any atrocities would face consequences, “using all available mechanisms, including those available under U.S. law.”

Myanmar's military retains extensive control over the national security apparatus, with the ministries of Home, Defence and Border Affairs run by serving generals.  It effectively enjoys a veto over constitutional reform that has barred Aung San Suu Kyi assuming the presidency.

“Myanmar’s response to this crisis is critical to determining the success of its transition to a more democratic society,” Tillerson said.

”It’s a responsibility of the government and its security forces to protect and respect the human rights of all persons within its borders and to hold accountable those who fail to do so.”

He said the United States would provide an additional $47 million in humanitarian assistance for refugees bringing the total to $87 million since the Rakhine crisis erupted in August. The total volume of US humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons within the whole of Myanmar stood at $ 151 million.

“The humanitarian scale of this crisis is staggering,” Tillerson said.

But he said he was encouraged by talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh to agree on a refugee repatriation process.

Bangladesh's foreign minister A H Mahmud Ali arrives in Nay Pyi Taw on Thursday for discussions to facilitate an early agreement on repatriation of the Muslim Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh.

During the news conference with Tillerson alongside him, Aung San Suu Kyi was asked to explain why she had not spoken out more strongly over the plight of the Rohingya.

“What I say is not supposed to be exciting,” Suu Kyi said, adding that she had aimed to keep the public informed without setting different ethnic, religious communities against each other.

“It’s important to bring peace and stability to this country and that can only be done on the basis of rule of law," she said. 

Later, the US State Department in a press release identified steps Washington was contemplating.

*  Engaging with the Burmese government at all levels to demand the end to violence and mass atrocities and resolve the human rights and humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State, including the safe, voluntary, dignified return of displaced persons, the majority of whom are Rohingya; 

* Working to hold accountable those responsible for mass atrocities and human rights violations and abuses;  Advocating for the Burmese government’s implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. 

* Providing over $68 million to Burma since 2013 to strengthen democratic processes, including: $18 million for the 2015 elections, which resulted in a civilian-led government; over $11 million to build democratic justice and civilian law enforcement, including fighting trafficking in persons and reducing the supply of and demand for narcotics

* Continued support for civil society organizations and marginalized communities to foster intercommunal tolerance and understanding and improve natural resource management

* Reducing poverty to enable a resilient, democratic society to realize its potential; 

It listed some of its achievements as well. 

* Trained over 225,000 smallholder farmers in modern farming techniques in 2017; 

* Distributed enough bed nets last year to protect 1 million people as Burma moves closer to eliminating malaria by 2030 through the President's Malaria Initiative; 

* The U.S.-Myanmar Partnership Dialogue was formulated in 2016 and has expanded bilateral communication and cooperation in political and economic spheres; 

* Provided advisory support to the civilian government on 40+ business-enabling laws, regulations and policies, facilitating increases in U.S. exports to Burma and more investment opportunities for the private sector; 

* Supported a USTR-led Trade Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) dialogue to ensure free, fair, and reciprocal U.S.-Burma trade; 

* Led the creation of the Myanmar Labor Initiative, through which international partners support the ongoing efforts of workers, employers, and the government to improve industrial relations and reform labor laws to meet international standards. 

* Providing over $60 million since 2012 to deepen and sustain reform, and to foster legitimate and inclusive peacebuilding nationally, including support to diverse civil society; 

* Including $1 million to implement a peace education curriculum in secular and faithbased schools and to conduct research on religious and ethnic issues in the political dialogue; 

* Working with civil society, ethnic armed groups, and political parties to build a culture of dialogue and move toward an inclusive, sustainable end to armed conflict. 

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