Swiss visit by Myanmar army officials sparks controversy

Thousands more Rohingya Muslims continue to flee violence and persecution in Myanmar and cross into Bangladesh; photo taken at Palong Khali, Bangladesh, October 17, 2017 Keystone

The Swiss branch of Amnesty International has criticised a visit to Switzerland by a high-ranking delegation of Myanmar army officials to discuss federalism. The visit comes as thousands more Rohingya Muslims continue to flee violence in western Myanmar and cross into Bangladesh. 

This content was published on October 18, 2017 - 11:38

“The visit [to Switzerland] is unacceptable in our eyes, as for over a month the Myanmar army has been guilty of atrocities which have caused the flight of 600,000 people to Bangladesh,” Amnesty International Switzerland spokesman Alain Bovard told Swiss public radio, RTS, on Wednesday. 

A delegation of Myanmar army officials arrived in Switzerland this week for talks on federalism, which were organised after they contacted Swiss officials in early 2017, the Swiss foreign ministry confirmed. 

The six-person delegation is led by the army's number two, General Soe Win. They will reportedly be met by Heidi Grau, head of the foreign ministry’s Human Security Division and other federal experts. The foreign ministry said discussions would cover security and humanitarian matters, international law, peace policy, federalism and the protection of minorities. The visit will also focus on security sector reforms, democratic control of the security forces and mine clearance.

Talks are also planned with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva but not with Swiss cabinet ministers, RTS said. 

Bovard said the foreign ministry should have cancelled the visit when the crisis exploded in August and the “scale of the atrocities and human rights violations committed by the Myanmar army in north Rakhine State” became clear. 

Modified programme

The Swiss foreign ministry told that the visit had been adapted: ‘In light of recent developments, the travel programme has been revised so that Switzerland can remind its interlocutors that it condemns the armed violence in Rakhine and that it is the duty of each state to fully respect its obligations under international law and, in particular, to prevent any human rights violations. On this occasion, we also wish to offer Swiss expertise and that of its partners in appropriate fields.” 

The ministry said it was also a Swiss diplomatic tradition to discuss with all parties. 

This is the first time that a Myanmar military delegation has visited Switzerland, according to RTS. Up to now, only representatives of civil society (eight delegations) have been received by the Swiss authorities. 

During each visit, the aim was "to explain how federalism works to improve relations between the central state and regions inhabited by linguistic minorities,” the ministry added. 

Crimes against humanity

On Wednesday, Amnesty International issued a new detailed reportExternal link accusing Myanmar’s security forces of committing crimes against humanity as part of a systematic, organized and ruthless campaign of violence against the Rohingya population as a whole in northern Rakhine State, after a Rohingya armed group attacked around 30 security posts on August 25. 

Citing testimony from more 120 Rohingya men and women who have fled to Bangladesh in recent weeks, it says: “hundreds of thousands of Rohingya women, men, and children have been the victims of a widespread and systematic attack, amounting to crimes against humanity.” 

Myanmar's government has said it was responding to attacks by Muslim insurgents. But the United Nations has described the brutal attacks against Rohingya as "textbook ethnic cleansing." 

The Swiss visit also comes as the European Council issued a resolution External linkon Monday condemning the violence in Myanmar and announcing a suspension of invitations to senior Myanmar officers, a “review all practical defence cooperation”, as well as maintaining an existing arms embargo. 

“In the light of the disproportionate use of force carried out by the security forces, the EU and its Member States will suspend invitations to the Commander-in-chief of the Myanmar/Burma armed forces and other senior military officers and review all practical defence cooperation,” it said in a statement.  

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