Important Takeaways from US Secretary of State Meetings in Naypyidaw

By The Irrawaddy 16 November 2017

YANGON — US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Myanmar’s administrative capital Naypyitaw on Wednesday to meet with the State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing regarding the issues in Rakhine State.

The meetings came at a time when Myanmar has been under international criticism coupled with the reimposing of US and EU sanctions on military leadership as more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims from northern Rakhine State have fled to Bangladesh following security clearance operations that began in August. Many of the refugees said they had witnessed arbitrary killings, rape and arson carried out by the Myanmar Army.

After the meetings, Daw Aung San Suu kyi and Rex Tillerson held a joint press conference and took questions from the media, saying that the United States and friends from around the region are committed to helping the Government of Myanmar and its people work through this crisis with urgency, sensitivity, and openness while being dedicated to Myanmar’s successful transition. The Secretary of State also had a separate meeting with the military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. Here are some highlights from the media briefing and the meeting with the military chief.

The Purpose of the Secretary of State’s Visit

Rex Tillerson: “I’m here today in Naypyitaw to reaffirm our commitment to a successful democratic transition in Myanmar, and that commitment remains strong … We continue to support the elected government as it strives to make progress on urgently needed reforms, to solidify the democratic gains of recent years, and to bring peace and reconciliation, prosperity, and greater respect for human rights. The crisis in Rakhine State is one of the greatest challenges Myanmar has faced since the elected government came into office last year. We’re deeply concerned by credible reports of widespread atrocities committed by Myanmar’s security forces and by vigilantes who are unrestrained by the security forces during the recent violence in Rakhine State.”

US Condemnation of the ARSA

Rex Tillerson: “We do condemn the August 25 attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on Myanmar’s security forces that initiated this violence and reiterate that there is zero tolerance for such attacks. We express our condolences at the loss of the lives among the Myanmar security forces resulting from this unprovoked attack.”

US Assistance for Rakhine Issue

Rex Tillerson: “I am announcing today that the United States will provide an additional $47 million in humanitarian assistance for refugees, bringing the United States response to the Rakhine State crisis in Myanmar… The United States welcomes the government’s commitments to allow refugees to voluntarily return and to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State for creating lasting peace by supporting economic development and respecting the rights of all people in Rakhine State, including those displaced… We are encouraged by recent exchanges between the Government of Myanmar and Government of Bangladesh and urge both sides to continue to work together to ensure the safety and security of those who want to return to their homes.”

On Civil-Military Relations

Rex Tillerson: “It is incumbent upon the military and security forces to respect these commitments of the civilian governments, to assist the government in implementing them, and to ensure the safety and security of all people in Rakhine State… We support the Government of Myanmar’s goals of developing its military into a professional and respected institution. As I’ve told Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, the military support for Myanmar’s ongoing transition to a federal, democratic state is crucial. As part of that process, the military and government must work together to address the grievances of civilians throughout Myanmar and build strong, credible institutions… We recognize the military’s responsibility to respond to terrorist or other insurgent attacks. Any response, however, must be disciplined and avoid to the maximum extent possible harming innocent civilians. We will be following up with the Myanmar Government to explore opportunities to collaborate on areas of counter violent extremism and counterterrorism.”

Calling for an Impartial Investigation on Human Rights Abuses

Rex Tillerson: “The recent serious allegations of abuses in Rakhine State demand a credible and impartial investigation, and those who commit human rights abuses or violations must be held accountable. This need for justice and accountability applies not only to Rakhine State but to wherever such abuses or violations occur across Myanmar.
In all of my meetings, I have called on Myanmar’s civilian government to lead a full and effective, independent investigation, and for the military to facilitate full access and cooperation. The United States strongly supports such an approach…the United States will continue to work with our partners to assure there are consequences for individuals confirmed to have been responsible for atrocities using all available mechanisms, including those available under US law.”

Rex Tilerson to AFP: “I think clearly, as you point out, the scenes of what occurred up there are just horrific, and the commander-in-chief shared certain parts of their own internal investigation with me. However, as I indicated in my remarks, I think there still is more that we need to understand about what happened, and that’s why we believe an independent investigation would be helpful to everyone to understand what transpired and who should be held to account.”

On the Rakhine Issue

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi: “We have discussed the matter in some detail, and we agree that it most important that we should bring peace and stability to this country, and that can only be done on the basis of rule of law. And everybody should understand that the rule of (inaudible) is to protect peace and stability, not to punish people. If we all understand, then I think we can cooperate on these issues, which are of great concern to the United States as well as to other members of the international community.

“I hope you recognize the existing challenges are very great indeed and multifaceted. It’s not a one-dimensional Rakhine problem, it’s a multidimensional problem that the applies to the whole of the country, which is why we are all involved in its resolution.”

The State Counselor’s Silence on the Humanitarian Crisis

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to FOX News: “I don’t know why people say that I’ve been silent. I haven’t been silent. Actually, we’ve been sending out a lot of statements from my office, and I’ve also made statements of my own. But I think what people mean is that what I say is not interesting enough. But what I say is not meant to be exciting, it’s meant to be accurate. And it’s aimed at creating more harmony and a better future for everybody, not for setting people against each other.

We mustn’t forget that there are many different communities in the Rakhine, and if they are to live together in peace and harmony in the long-term, we can’t set them against each other now. We cannot make the kind of statements that drives them further apart. This is the reason why we are very careful about what is said.”

Ethnic Cleansing

Rex Tillerson to FOX News: “I think clearly what we know occurred in Rakhine State that led to so many people fleeing the area has a number of characteristics of certainly crimes against humanity. Whether it meets all of the criteria for ethnic cleansing, I think we continue to evaluate that ourselves. I think this is the reason why an independent investigation would be very useful to help us understand not just who – who to hold accountable – but also why – what were the motivations behind what occurred.

On the heels of – again, I’ll remind you this started with an attack by the Arakan [Rohingya Salvation Army] against Myanmar security forces, and then it was in the response that things seemed to have gotten out of control. So I think an independent investigation would help all of us understand a number of aspects of what’s a very, I think, complex situation.

Military Claims

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing: “Western countries including the US have used words alleging that the Bengalis fled to Bangladesh due to the use of force from the Myanmar Tatmadaw. The number of Bengalis fleeing to Bangladesh from August 25 to September 5 was very small, and more fled after that. The main reason is that the ARSA extremist Bengali terrorists fled to Bangladesh fearing counter-attacks of security forces after they failed to carry out successful attacks on the security outposts. As they fled, they took their families, causing an exodus….Other Bengalis were also threateningly forced to flee to Bangladesh, while some were persuaded to live in a third country.

They left steadily. The international community assumed and said Bengalis fled from Myanmar due to torture but they did not know the real situation, they need to have the real situation. Preparations are being made to re-accept the Bengalis who left Myanmar, under the law.”