US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will stress the need to halt violence and stabilise Rakhine State when he meets the head of Myanmar's military on Wednesday in a bid to stem the Rohingya refugee crisis, a senior State Department official said.
More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since late August, driven out by a counter-insurgency clearance operation in Rakhine State. A top UN official has called the Myanmar military's operation a textbook case of "ethnic cleansing.”
Attending an East Asia summit in Manila on Tuesday, Tillerson met Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose less than two-year-old civilian administration shares power with the military and has no control over its generals.
He will meet Suu Kyi again in the Myanmar capital of Naypyidaw on Wednesday, and hold separate talks with the head of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Asked what approach Tillerson would take with Myanmar's army chief, the State Department official told journalists in a briefing by teleconference, that the focus would be on restoring peace in Rakhine.
“We are focusing on trying to stabilise areas in northern Rakhine so that people can return there, stopping the violence, making sure that military would protect all populations in that area equally and that they conduct a credible investigation that leads to accountability,” said the official, who was with Tillerson in Manila, but declined to be identified.
The official said the consequences for the country, also known as Burma, if it failed to respond to the crisis with accountability could be part of the conversation with the military leader.
"Burma made a lot of progress and we would not want to see that progress reversed,” the official added.
US senators in Washington are pressing for economic sanctions and travel restrictions targeting the military and its business interests.
“The secretary will reiterate support for Burma's democratic transition and urge the Burmese government to protect local population and allow unhindered humanitarian and media access, (and) support for a credible investigation of abuses," the official said.
Accusations of organised mass rape and other crimes against humanity were levelled at the Myanmar military on Sunday by another senior UN official, who had toured camps in Bangladesh where Rohingya refugees have taken shelter.
Pramila Patten, the UN special representative of the secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict, said she would raise accusations against the Myanmar military with the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
The military, known as the Tatmadaw, has consistently protested its innocence, and on Monday it posted the findings of an internal investigation on the Facebook page of Min Aung Hlaing.
It said it had found no instances where its soldiers had shot and killed Rohingya villagers, raped women or tortured prisoners. It denied that security forces had torched Rohingya villages or used "excessive force.”
The military said that, while 376 "terrorists" were killed, there were no deaths of innocent people.
Human rights groups have poured scorn on the military's investigation, branding it a "whitewash" and calling for UN and independent investigators to be allowed into the country.
Suu Kyi's failure to speak out strongly over the plight of the Rohingya has widely damaged the Nobel peace prize winner's reputation as a stateswoman.
Many diplomats, however, believe Myanmar's fragile transition to democracy after 49 years of military rule would be jeopardised if she publicly criticised the armed forces.
“Both parts of the government will have to work together in order to solve this problem … Trying to get two of them to work together, to try to solve the problem, is certainly going to be very important," the US official said.
The official said Suu Kyi had been very open in her talks with Tillerson and other leaders during the regional summits in the past few days about the steps that needed to be taken to resolve the crisis.
"She has been very forthcoming about wanting to solve the problem, what kind of actions need to be taken to improve the situation," the official said.
"We know the government’s plan for voluntarily repatriation and encourage the government to implement those plans as soon as possible.”