By John Geddie
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence voiced the Trump administration’s strongest condemnation yet of Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims on Wednesday, telling leader Aung San Suu Kyi that “persecution” by her country’s army was “without excuse”.
Pence also pressed Suu Kyi to pardon two Reuters journalists who were arrested nearly a year ago and sentenced in September to seven years in prison for breaching the Official Secrets Act.
“The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse,” Pence told Suu Kyi in remarks open to the media before they went into private talks on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific summit in Singapore.
“I am anxious to hear the progress that you are making of holding those accountable who are responsible for the violence that displaced so many hundreds of thousands and created such suffering, including the loss of life,” he added.
The Myanmar army launched a sweeping offensive in the north of Rakhine state in late August last year, in response to Rohingya militant attacks. Myanmar denies persecuting members of the Muslim minority, saying its forces have carried out legitimate counterinsurgency operations.
Leaders of the Association of South East Asian nations (ASEAN), who will meet Pence on Thursday, also said in a statement issued by Chairman Singapore late on Wednesday they expect a commission of inquiry set up by the Myanmar government “to seek accountability by carrying out an independent and impartial investigation of the alleged human rights violations and related issues” in Rakhine state.
The calls appeared to reflect a stronger line from the 10-member ASEAN grouping, which traditionally works by consensus and is reluctant to get involved in matters deemed internal to its members.
Suu Kyi, who sat stony-faced next to Pence as he spoke, responded to him: “Of course 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 added.
The United States has accused the military of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, who are widely reviled in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
U.N.-mandated investigators have accused the military of unleashing a campaign of killings, rape and arson with “genocidal intent”.
Amnesty International this week withdrew its most prestigious human rights prize from Suu Kyi, accusing her of perpetuating human rights abuses by not speaking out about violence against the Rohingya.
Once hailed as a champion in the fight for democracy, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner has been stripped of a series of international honors over the Rohingya exodus.
Neither Suu Kyi nor her office have commented publicly about the decision by Amnesty International.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay did not answer calls seeking comment on Pence’s comments on Wednesday.
ARRESTS OF JOURNALISTS
Pence also said that Washington wanted to see a free and democratic press in Myanmar, commenting: “In America, we believe in our democratic institutions and ideals, including a free and independent press.”
White House officials told reporters after their closed-door talks that he had pressed her “multiple times” to pardon the two convicted Reuters journalists.
“They had a very candid exchange of views on that,” a senior White House official said. He declined to elaborate.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, the Reuters journalists, both Myanmar nationals, were arrested in the city of Yangon last December. On Nov. 5, their lawyers lodged an appeal against their conviction.
At the time of their arrest in December, they were working on a Reuters investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim villagers during an army crackdown in Rakhine state. Reuters published its investigation into the massacre on Feb. 8.
Suu Kyi has said that the jailing of the Reuters reporters had nothing to do with freedom of expression and that they were convicted, not because they were journalists, but because they had broken the official secrets law.
(Writing by John Chalmers)