SINGAPORE — Vice President Pence on Wednesday told Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi that violence against Rohingya Muslims in her country is “without excuse,” underscoring mounting pressure on the tainted Nobel laureate to act over atrocities described as “genocidal” by the United Nations.
In a tense exchange before a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of regional summits in Singapore, Pence — the most senior U.S. official to meet Suu Kyi since last year’s crisis — told Suu Kyi he was “very anxious” to hear about resolving the Rohingya crisis and plans to repatriate Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh.,The widely criticized repatriation process could start as soon as this week.
“I am anxious to hear the progress that you are making holding those accountable who are responsible for the violence that displaced so many hundreds of thousands, [and] created such suffering,” Pence said, as Suu Kyi looked on.
In brief and almost inaudible comments, she replied: “We understand our country better than any other country does.” Suu Kyi added that she would like to “explain” what Myanmar is doing to make the country a “safer and more prosperous place.”
The icy exchange was emblematic of pressure that Suu Kyi is facing at this forum and others in the wake of the widely documented atrocities against the Rohingya at the hands of the Myanmar military. The United Nations says the atrocities could be tantamount to genocide and have sent more than 700,000 refugees pouring into neighboring Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi requested Wednesday’s meeting with Pence on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summits in Singapore.
She has also been criticized by some in the 10-member ASEAN bloc, despite its long-standing policy of nonintervention in the affairs of other states in the group. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the organization’s elder statesman, said in comments to reporters Tuesday that Suu Kyi was “trying to defend what is indefensible” by failing to condemn the Myanmar military for its actions.
“They are actually oppressing these people to the point of killing them, mass killing,” he reportedly said.
A senior White House official said Pence also pressed Suu Kyi “multiple times” on pardoning two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who have been sentenced to jail for violating the country’s colonial-era secrets act — charges widely seen as politically motivated. The pair were reporting on the massacre of 10 Muslim Rohingya men, part of the broader crackdown that occurred in August 2017, when they were arrested in December.
The official declined to comment on Suu Kyi’s response on the journalists or whether Pence was satisfied with it.
In his opening remarks before the bilateral meeting, Pence said he was “looking forward” to speaking with Suu Kyi about the “premium” his country and administration places on a free and independent press.
“In America, we believe in our democratic institutions and our ideals, including a free and independent press,” Pence said. “The arrest and jailing of two journalists last fall was deeply troubling to millions of Americans.”
Pence’s defense of the media, however, contrasts with President Trump’s disparaging attacks against some U.S. journalists and repeated smears calling news organizations the “enemy of the people.”
Others have joined the United States in calling for Myanmar to address the Rohingya issue, including the underlying and long-standing conditions that have made the minority vulnerable to violence and sometimes prompt Rohingya to flee to neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Thailand to escape the persecution. The Rohingya say they are native to Myanmar, but Myanmar considers them to be illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh and denies them citizenship rights.
Myanmar has also insisted that the August 2017 crackdown was in response to Rohingya militant attacks and has denied charges of ethnic cleansing or genocide.
Singapore, which chairs ASEAN this year, has pushed behind the scenes to get Suu Kyi and other Myanmar leaders to understand the severity of the crisis they are facing, say regional diplomats.
“If Myanmar drifts back into pariah status through international and other sanctions, it could pull the whole of ASEAN down with it,” said Kobsak Chutikul, a retired ambassador and former member of Thailand’s parliament who was involved in an advisory board on the Rohingya crisis until he quit in July over concerns that it was ineffective. “Continued ASEAN centrality and relevance is considered extremely important by all members. Myanmar’s condition threatens this — at the least, it is bad PR.”
Suu Kyi has also lost a string of international accolades awarded to her when she was under house arrest for most of two decades for standing up to Myanmar’s military junta and demanding democratic rule. Amnesty International withdrew its highest honor, the Ambassador of Conscience Award, from Suu Kyi on Sunday.
“Today, we are profoundly dismayed that you no longer represent a symbol of hope, courage, and the undying defense of human rights,” Kumi Naidoo, the rights group’s secretary general, wrote in a letter to Suu Kyi that the group made public. “Amnesty International cannot justify your continued status as a recipient of the Ambassador of Conscience award and so with great sadness we are hereby withdrawing it from you.”
Of particular and immediate concern, rights groups say, is the imminent repatriation of thousands of Rohingya from Bangladesh to Myanmar. The United Nations says that conditions are unsuitable for the safe return of the Rohingya to their home country, and the International Crisis Group has warned that a rushed return could trigger violence.
Myanmar’s strategic location — on China’s southwestern border — has made the country especially important to Washington. The senior White House official also said that Pence in Wednesday’s meeting warned Suu Kyi against falling into the trap of debt diplomacy — a thinly veiled reference to China, whose Belt and Road Initiative is seen as a tool to extend political influence through infrastructure building while putting countries on the hook for billions of dollars in debt.
China has signed an agreement to build a massive economic corridor through Myanmar and is developing a $1.3 billion port close to the Indian Ocean.
The United States has stressed to its allies in China’s backyard that Washington offers an alternative to investment from Beijing. Pence emphasized American commitment to the Asia-Pacific region in his bilateral meetings Wednesday, which included encounters with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.