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Hunt says pressed Suu Kyi on 'justice and accountability' for Rohingya

NAYPYITAW (Reuters) - Myanmar must ensure there is “no hiding place” for those responsible for crimes against its Rohingya minority if it is to avoid a lasting stain on the country’s reputation, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Thursday.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt meets with local muslim residents in Maungdaw in Rakhine state, Myanmar, September 20, 2018. Ye Aung Thu/Pool via REUTERS

Hunt told Reuters he pressed Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi on the importance of holding the armed forces accountable for any atrocities, adding that if that did not happen within the country other options should be considered, including referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

“If there isn’t accountability through domestic processes the international community will not let it rest at that,” said Hunt in an interview at the end of a two-day visit to the former British colony previously known as Burma.

“We need to be absolutely clear that there can be no hiding place for anyone responsible for these kinds of atrocities.”

Myanmar’s main government spokesman Zaw Htay was unavailable for comment.

United Nations-mandated investigators have said Myanmar’s military carried out mass killings and gang rapes of Rohingya with “genocidal intent” in an operation in Rakhine state, in the west of the country, that drove more than 700,000 refugees across the border to Bangladesh.

The investigators called for commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing and five generals to be prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Myanmar has rejected the UN findings as “one-sided”. It says the military action, which followed militant attacks on security forces in August last year, was a legitimate counterinsurgency operation.

Myanmar has launched several domestic probes that have largely dismissed allegations made by Rohingya refugees. In July, Suu Kyi appointed a commission chaired by retired Filipino diplomat Rosario Manalo to investigate the allegations of human rights violations.

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Hunt said he had witnessed a “climate of fear” during a visit to Rakhine, where he was taken to empty centres built by Myanmar to house Rohingya the government says it is ready to welcome back. Refugees needed to see “accountability and justice” for atrocities to feel confident enough to return, he said. “If there isn’t accountability and justice, this will be as big a stain on Burma’s history as the Khmer Rouge are for Cambodia.”

Asked whether he would support referring Myanmar to the ICC, Hunt said there were “a number of different options”.

In separate comments on Twitter, Hunt noted an ICC referral would need the support of the UN Security Council “which it may not get so we need to look at other options too”.

A Security Council referral would need nine votes in favour and no vetoes from the permanent members Russia, China, the United States, Britain and France. Diplomats say Russia and China are unlikely to agree to such a move.

The ICC declined to comment. On Tuesday, the ICC prosecutor said her office had begun a preliminary examination into whether alleged forced deportations of Rohingya from Myanmar into Bangladesh could constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.

During the trip Hunt visited a group supporting political prisoners in Yangon and met Suu Kyi in the capital, Naypyitaw. The military declined Hunt’s request for a meeting, he said.

Hunt said he was “extremely concerned” about the case of two Reuters journalists who were arrested last December while investigating a massacre in Rakhine.

Reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison after being convicted this month under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.

Hunt said he raised specific concerns with Suu Kyi about the conviction and asked her to consider giving them a pardon.

“She indicated that the judicial processes would probably need to be concluded before that could be considered, but I did put that squarely on the table as something I hoped she would consider,” he said.

“This is a critical moment for Burma as one of the newest democracies in the world to show that its court system is effective and there is due process, and I think there are a number of grounds for concern that that didn’t happen in this case.”

Reporting by Simon Lewis and Shoon Naing in Naypyitaw; Additional reporting by William James and Elisabeth O’Leary in London and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Alex Richardson