Myanmar to face stronger European Union pressure in Feb over Rohingya crisis

Justin Forsyth

The suffering of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims is worse than it has been portrayed by the media, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said, countering claims by the government of Aung San Suu Kyi that the worldwide press has been biased in its coverage of what the U.S. and United Nations have called a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

"It appears that the Board is likely to become a cheerleading squad for government policy as opposed to proposing genuine policy changes that are desperately needed to assure peace, stability, and development in Rakhine State".

Veteran US diplomat Bill Richardson was pursuing "his own agenda" and was asked to step down from Myanmar's worldwide advisory board on the Rohingya crisis, a statement from the government said on Thursday.

Richardson called the panel a "whitewash and a cheerleading operation" for Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The crisis erupted on August 25 following an attack by a Rohingya insurgent group that led to a violent response by the Myanmar Army in the state of Rakhine, where it is calculated that around 1 million Rohingyas lived.

On Monday, Richardson met with Myanmar's de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss both the detained journalists as well as the plan to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees who had fled the country past year following a military crackdown.

Rohingya witnesses and human rights activists have accused the armed forces of committing murder, rape and arson in a campaign the United Nations and the US maintain is ethnic cleansing. Bangladesh has not said how long the delay will last.

A Myanmar government spokesman said Mr Richardson "should review himself over his personal attack against our state counsellor".

Richardson describes Suu Kyi as being furious with his suggestion that the journalists' case be handed swiftly as a way to protect freedom of the press, and a scheduled meeting with the Minister of Home Affairs was abruptly canceled.

The diplomat, one of the five foreigners on the 10-member committee, also criticized the lack of commitment of the Chairman of the Advisory Board, Surakiart Sathirathai from Thailand, and his "general desire to avoid the real issues at the risk of confronting our Myanmar hosts". But Bangladesh said it needs more time to prepare for the transfer.

Richardson said that after three days of advisory board meetings it had "become clear that I can not in good conscience serve in this role".

Bangladesh on Tuesday delayed the repatriation of the largely stateless Rohingya to Myanmar as the process of compiling and verifying the list of people to be sent back was incomplete.

"In view of the difference of opinion that developed, the government decided that his continued participation on the board would not be in the best interest of all concerned", the statement added.

Tensions have soared in recent days in the overcrowded Bangladeshi camps housing the Rohingya with many refugees refusing to return to Myanmar.

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) Wednesday laid stress on imposing arms embargo and targeted sanctions on Myanmar and its senior officials respectively to create a safe environment for returning of Rohingyas to their homeland from Bangladesh.

Myanmar officials have pointed to the report as evidence they are being transparent in their handling of the situation in Rakhine, but in a widely-publicized speech on the issue, Suu Kyi directly contradicted several of Annan's findings, and few of the recommendations have yet been implemented.

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