Myanmar's military has denied it has committed atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State days before the visit of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Myanmar. "Security forces did not commit shooting at innocent villagers and sexual violence and rape cases against women," read a Myanmar military report released Nov. 13. "They did not arrest, beat and kill the villagers," it said. The report instead blamed violence in the state's north on the Rohingya militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) that attacked police posts and an army battalion on Aug. 25. The report — which stated that 2,817 people from 54 villages were interviewed — also claimed that security forces did not steal Rohingya property or burn down their villages or mosques. In response, rights groups have blasted the military's report. "The Burmese military's absurd effort to absolve itself of mass atrocities underscores why an independent international investigation is needed to establish the facts and identify those responsible," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch said in a statement. Such sentiment was echoed by Amnesty International (AI). "Once again, Myanmar's military is trying to sweep serious violations against the Rohingya under the carpet," James Gomez, AI's regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific said in a statement. Since August, more than 600,000 Rohingya from Rakhine have fled to Bangladesh avoiding a military crackdown that the U.N. has described as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. A drawing by a young Rohingya Muslim made in an informal school at the Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh's Ukhia district on Nov. 4. (Photo by Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP) General in charge replaced
Days earlier before the report released, Major General Maung Maung Soe — who was head of western command that led operations in Rakhine — was transferred and replaced. No reasons were given for his transfer. Both the military's report and the transfer of the general came ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's visit to the Myanmar capital Naypyitaw on Nov. 15. There, Tillerson is set to meet State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi
and the country's military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Tillerson is expected to put pressure on Myanmar to halt violence against the Rohingya.
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Tillerson's earlier met with Suu Kyi on the margins of the ASEAN summit in Manila on Nov. 14. Meanwhile, U.S. Congress is seeking to pass legislation that would impose economic and travel sanctions against the military and its business interests. But Bishop Alexander Pyone Cho of Pyay Diocese that covers Rakhine State said the international community including the U.S. should apply constructive pressure on the Suu Kyi-led government. The situation remains fragile, he said, regarding the country's transition from military rule to a full democracy. "I don't think targeted sanctions on the military would be the best option. The U.S. government needs to have direct engagement and a constructive approach," Bishop Pyone Cho told ucanews.com. "Too much pressure could lead the country into the hands of China and Russia," the bishop said. Khin Zaw Win, director of Tampadipa Institute in Yangon, described Tillerson's visit as an important step in efforts to bring stability to Rakhine State. He said the military's report, the replacing of the general and Suu Kyi's recent visit to northern Rakhine for the first-time since taking office in April 2016, has been influenced by Tillerson and his coming visit. "But the move by Suu Kyi and the military is not enough," Khin Zaw Win told ucanews.com. "The military also needs to show its commitment beyond the external changes," he said. Yan Myo Thein, a political commentator from Yangon, said it now appears that the Myanmar military is trying to handle the Rakhine crisis more carefully due to external pressure. "However, it would be better that the US Congress did not impose sanctions and instead focus on direct engagement with the military and through that improve its handling of human rights violations," Yan Myo Thein told ucanews.com. Kyaw Min, chairman of the Democracy and Human Rights Rohingya party in Yangon, said the Tillerson visit might bring some improvement for the Rohingya and the situation in northern Rakhine but he doesn't have high expectations. "The US government appears to have confidence in Suu Kyi," Kyaw Min told ucanews.com. "But the military and Suu Kyi are in the same boat regarding the Rohingya issue so I am not sure how much Tillerson can actually do," he said. Kyaw Min said that the Rohingya have lost any hope that Suu Kyi will help improve their situation. In the past several months, Suu Kyi has been criticized over her failure to address the Rohingya problem. Others point out that the Nobel peace prize winner has little control over the country's powerful military that holds key ministries of defense, border and interior. Under the country's 2008 Constitution the military is also guaranteed 25 percent of the bicameral parliament. Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya
as one of the country's 135 ethnic groups and instead considers them as Bengali, "infiltrators" from Bangladesh. Decades of persecution by the military and hard-line Buddhists
has forced large numbers to flee to various countries, mostly to Bangladesh.