YANGON: Myanmar’s army cleared itself of any abuses against Rohingya civilians on Monday, following an internal probe that a rights group said aimed to “whitewash” an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Muslim minority.
The findings were released ahead of Wednesday’s visit by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is expected to adopt a firm tone with the military over its treatment of the Rohingya, more than 600,000 of whom have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in two and a half months.
The crisis detonated in late August after Rohingya rebels attacked police posts in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, triggering a military crackdown that saw hundreds of villages reduced to ashes and sparked a massive exodus.
While authorities have blocked independent access to northern Rakhine, journalists and UN officials have collected reams of testimony from Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh describing soldiers and Buddhist mobs committing murder, rape and mass arson.
Following its first official investigation into the crisis, the army said the findings published late Monday were based on interviews with more than 3,000 villagers in northern Rakhine and proved that “all security members” had “strictly abided” by the rules of engagement.
After firing warning shots at mobs of alleged Rohingya militants, soldiers and police only “started firing single shots in intervals aiming only at the legs between the foot and knee of the leader” if the group did not desist, the report said.
In total 13 security officers and 376 Rohingya “terrorists” were killed in clashes over a two-week period starting on August 25, it said.
The report also denied allegations that soldiers had raped women, set fire to villages or pillaged homes.
“They did not threaten, bully and drive out the villagers,” it said, blaming Rohingya militants for arson attacks.
The only lapse on the military’s part pertained to “weaknesses” in management and intelligence-gathering that allowed the rebel raids to take place, the probe said.
The report will do little to appease the UN and rights groups that have documented evidence of a systematic army campaign to expel the maligned Muslim minority.
Rights watchdog Amnesty International slammed the probe as an attempt to “whitewash crimes against humanity”.
“There is overwhelming evidence that the military has murdered and raped Rohingya and burned their villages to the ground,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
The Rohingya have been the target of state persecution in mainly Buddhist Myanmar for years.
Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a former democracy activist who came to power in free elections in 2015, has been lambasted by rights groups for failing to speak up for the Rohingya or condemn festering anti-Muslim sentiment in the country.
But she lacks control over the military.
Washington has been careful not to place blame on her and focus instead on the army’s role in the conflict.