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A year after the assault on the Rohingya, Myanmar's generals are unapologetic

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (right) and Aung San Suu Kyi at a meeting in Ottawa on June 7, 2017. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by David Kawai.

SINGAPORE - A year ago, the Myanmar military embarked on a massive crackdown in restive Rakhine state - driving out almost a million Rohingya to Bangladesh and creating one of the world's largest refugee camps while allegedly raping women, killing children and beheading men in the process.

Generals, however, remain defiant, even as sanctions mount and the U.S. State Department and United Nations ready reports that are likely to detail the military's premeditated efforts at effectively ridding the state of Rohingya Muslims. They believe they essentially eliminated a threat that was "growing bigger and bigger," according to one account of conversations top military leaders have had with counterparts from Southeast Asia.

"There was a sense that their problem in Rakhine had been solved, that this was their solution," said a person familiar with the conversations, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. The militants, the military alleged, had civilianized the conflict by embedding in villages and towns, and had to be stopped.

"They stand by their actions," the person added.

Interviews with a half-dozen former Myanmar generals and those familiar with their thinking say that they have also grown irritated by civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi's efforts to quell international outrage - believing she defends them in public, while working to undermine them by driving sanctions in private.

Suu Kyi - who made a rare address abroad here in Singapore on Tuesday defending her government's handling of the crisis - has watched this relationship with the generals deteriorate while she grows internationally isolated, dragging her heels and fumbling in response to the crisis last August. Her preferred tactic of outsourcing the Rohingya issue to a growing number of commissions with international representation, including one that had been led by the late United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, has been widely criticized, while Rohingya languish in Bangladesh and those left in Myanmar find their access to humanitarian aid, food and resources waning.

"We are still hopeless," Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya lawyer living in a camp outside Sittwe, Rakhine state's capital, said in a phone interview. He and other Rohingya say that security forces have arrived in droves ahead of the conflict's one-year mark, while doctors and aid workers have not been seen for weeks.

This was not the reality Suu Kyi envisioned in May 2016, her second month as the de facto leader of Myanmar's civilian government, when she approached Annan to lead a commission looking into the root of the Rakhine conflict. The commission was to come up with recommendations into how peace would be achieved in Rakhine state, where communal violence had erupted in 2012, driving 140, 000 Rohingya Muslims into squalid camps. Members of the maligned minority group say they are native to Myanmar, but were excluded from a junta-era citizenship law, denied rights and freedom of movement and rendered vulnerable as targets of extreme discrimination and violence.

Annan, commission members said, embarked on months-long negotiations with Myanmar's government to ensure he had a strong mandate - the ability to fundraise independently, travel unencumbered around Rakhine state and Myanmar and have staff within the country.

"We traveled widely, all the way from Maungdaw in the north to Ngapali in the south," said Laetitia van den Assum, a member of the commission and a former Dutch ambassador to Thailand. "Annan wrote to the government to ensure the commission was not just a useful shield for them. We wanted to be taken seriously."

In her address Tuesday, Suu Kyi paid tribute to Annan for his commitment to the issue.

He "abided by his decision to help us, even after events in Rakhine brought down severe criticism on Myanmar," she said, noting that Annan made time to speak to her over the phone periodically on the challenges her government was facing.

On Aug. 24 last year, after over 150 consultations and meetings, the commission presented its final report at a press conference in Yangon. It included 88 recommendations on issues including citizenship for the Rohingya, freedom of movement and education, and spelled out how these should be implemented.

"There is no time to lose. The situation in Rakhine State is becoming more precarious," said Annan.

Just eight hours after his remarks, Rohingya militants allegedly staged 30 attacks on Myanmar police posts in northern Rakhine state, according to the Myanmar military, prompting it to embark on a "clearance operation," sometimes with the help of armed Rakhine villagers. Hundreds of Muslim villages were torched and thousands were killed, and an estimated 800,000 others hastily gathered their possessions and trekked across the border to Bangladesh.

The Myanmar military and Suu Kyi's government were quick to deny allegations of ethnic cleansing. On Tuesday, she repeated that "terrorist activities" were the initial cause of the events that led to the crisis in Rakhine state.

Diplomats and aid workers in Myanmar, however, said they had seen what looked like preparations for a large-scale operation in the weeks leading up to the campaign. Security forces were limiting the quantity of other food supplies available to Rohingya families, destroying the extras, according to an internal report shared with The Washington Post. Troops entering the area confiscated kitchen knives and sticks from households.

Suu Kyi, aware of international pressure in the wake of the violence, asked a new advisory board to implement the Annan commission's recommendations. It would be led by Surakiart Sathirathai, a veteran Thai politician.

Among those asked to join was Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and governor of New Mexico, who was an old friend of Suu Kyi's.

"She told me that this would be a small group of internationally acclaimed people who would help implement the Annan commission's report," said Richardson in an interview.

Richardson agreed, stressing that he was to have a free hand, but was concerned by the change in tone he detected in the Nobel laureate.

"I told her the [commission's report] doesn't make her look good, and she started launching into it. She said, 'Everybody is against me Bill, the human rights groups, your country,'" he recounted.

Analysts say giving the board a free rein was never her intention.

The board was "intended more as a 'group of friends' to help improve international views of Myanmar, rather than a strong team to push forward difficult recommendations," said Richard Horsey, a longtime Yangon-based political analyst.

Within weeks of the board's first meeting in Naypyidaw, Myanmar's capital, this January, Richardson quit.

"She's in denial, and she's not serious about dealing with this issue," he said of Suu Kyi. "Anything that involves taking on the military, she won't do. She'll just do some PR moves like these commissions."

Other members found their hands similarly tied. Kobsak Chutikul, a retired Thai lawmaker and diplomat who quit the board in July, said he often spent his own money to travel around the country, refusing to wait for a green light from the capital.

"It was a bit haphazard, because the Annan commission had their own funding, and we didn't," said Kobsak.

Later, government officials in Naypyidaw started making monthly financial transfers of approximately $15,000 to Bangkok to support the work of the board, including renting an office space, but none has been rented for at least half a year. There has been no request yet for accounting or a return of this money, a board member said.

Myanmar government officials overseeing the board and its funding did not respond to requests for comment.

Last Thursday, Surakiart was summoned to Naypyidaw. He submitted the advisory board's final report, and it was dissolved, making way for another yet another body, a commission of inquiry into the wrongdoings in Rakhine state.

In a news conference last week, its chairman, a Philippine diplomat named Rosario Manalo, said there will be "no blaming of anybody" though the commission was ostensibly set up to conduct an investigation with a view toward accountability.

"This just goes on and on. Next year it will be another commission, another board," said Kobsak. "It is all for show - there is nothing real. It is a hoax."

The commissions were formed "to find a solution to the Rakhine crisis which will acceptable at home and abroad," said Zaw Htay, a spokesman for the Myanmar government. Suu Kyi in her address made a point of highlighting the work of the commission of inquiry, which she said will start work next week.

Still, the Myanmar military has rebuffed even Suu Kyi's small efforts to look into their conduct in Rakhine state. Any punishments for wrongdoing, said a former high-ranking general, speaking on a condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, are to be handled by the military without civilian interference.

Amid the tussle, the Myanmar government has promised to resettle the hundreds of thousands of refugees now in Bangladesh, and has signed a deal with the U.N. to help in this effort. It has promised to close the existing camps in Rakhine state, as a sign of goodwill and an indication to those in Bangladesh that it is safe to return.

But humanitarian access remains dire for the Rohingya, and aid agencies have been unable to freely access communities in northern Rakhine state. UNHCR and UNDP submitted requests for travel authorizations to visit conflict-hit areas on June 14, and are still waiting.

Aung Tun Thet, who coordinates the Myanmar government's humanitarian and development work in Rakhine state, said the authorizations are in the process of being issued but the local situation "remains fluid" and "risky."

"The Myanmar government isn't trustworthy. They never do what they promise about Rohingya people. They have been cheating us for decades," said Muhammad Saeed, a Rohingya community leader in Sittwe. "Rohingya from Myanmar [have a] message for their friends and family who fled to Bangladesh," he said. "It would be like stepping into hell if you came back to Myanmar."

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This article was written by Shibani Mahtani, a reporter for The Washington Post. Wai Moe reported from Yangon, Myanmar.

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