By Michelle Nichols
MAUNGDAW, Myanmar (Reuters) – Myanmar’s military has assured the United Nations of “harsh” action against perpetrators of sexual violence, state media reported on Tuesday, as U.N. envoys traveled to Rakhine State where the military conducted a widely criticized crackdown.
U.N. and rights groups say nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh after a military crackdown launched in Rakhine State in August that the United Nations denounced as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Many of the arriving refugees recounted incidents of killings, arson and rape but Myanmar largely rejected those reports as well as the accusation of ethnic cleansing.
The government said its forces were engaged in a legitimate security campaign in response to a string of Rohingya insurgent attacks on the security forces.
“Sexual violence (is) considered as despicable acts,” the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper cited military Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing as telling the envoys.
The military was “taking harsh and stronger actions against such offenders”, he said.
The U.N. Security Council envoys traveled by Myanmar military helicopters to northern Rakhine on Tuesday, the final day of their four-day visit to the region, flying over burned and bulldozed villages visible from the air.
The envoys arrived in Myanmar on Monday after visiting refugee camps on the Bangladesh side of the border and government leaders in Dhaka.
In Myanmar, they met separately with government leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing.
British U.N. Ambassador Karen Pierce told Reuters that during Monday’s meeting Min Aung Hlaing was “very forthcoming” on the issue of sexual assaults in Rakhine, adding that the military chief said such offences were “not tolerated”.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi, in her nearly hour-long meeting with the envoys, pledged to investigate any credible accusations of abuse, said diplomats who attended.
Suu Kyi noted Myanmar’s difficulties in transitioning to rule of law after decades of military dictatorship, said the diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“She said what had happened or what was alleged to have happened to some of the Rohingya villagers was not acceptable and that if evidence were available it should be reported to the Burmese authorities and they would investigate,” said Pierce.
“What we’ve got to do on the council is think how best to turn that into something operational so that the evidence gets collected and given either to the Burmese authorities or to some sort of international mechanism,” she said.
Suu Kyi’s civilian government has no control over the military. Government spokesman Zaw Htay did not respond to requests for comment.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar has for years denied the Rohingya citizenship, freedom of movement and access to basic services such as healthcare. Many in Myanmar regard the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from mostly Muslim Bangladesh.
When asked if the council could help ensure evidence of crimes such as rape is collected, Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy said: “I don’t think this is a council matter, frankly speaking. There are a lot of agencies apart from the Security Council.”
In northern Rakhine, the council envoys were shown a reception center Myanmar has built for repatriating Rohingya, aiming to accept a total of 150 people a day, and a transit camp that can house 30,000 returnees.
The envoys passed two bulldozed villages near the camp. They were also shown a rebuilt village.
The Security Council asked Myanmar in November to ensure no “further excessive use of military force” and to allow “freedom of movement, equal access to basic services, and equal access to full citizenship for all”.
On Monday, the council envoys met Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who asked them to press Myanmar to take back “their citizens”.
Hasina said the refugees should return “under U.N. supervision where security and safety should be ensured”.
Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed in January to complete the voluntary repatriation of the refugees within two years but differences between the two sides remain and implementation of the plan has been slow.
Suu Kyi’s office also said in a statement that cooperation was needed from Bangladesh on the repatriation of refugees.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols and Yimou Lee in YANGON; Editing by Robert Birsel and Darren Schuettler)