YANGON -- Myanmar's government remains defiant in the face of international accusations of systematic persecution of Rohingya Muslims, emboldened by the fact that important economic partners including Japan and China have been more muted in their criticism.
Under an agreement with Bangladesh, Myanmar is preparing to repatriate refugees that fled to the neighboring Muslim-majority country. The repatriations are set to begin later this month, but the cabinet minister overseeing the effort has revealed that the first wave will consist of 450 Hindu refugees. While Bangladesh is expected to seek to return an initial 100,000 Rohingya, there is no guarantee that the process will go its way.
Meanwhile, little if any information has been forthcoming from Myanmar's government on the so-called clearance operations by security forces that have displaced hundreds of thousands of the minority group from restive Rakhine State. The military leadership, reporting the results of an internal investigation, denied all accusations of Rohingya persecution in a Facebook post in November. No other public statement has come since. The government, led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, maintains that there is no evidence of the alleged abuses, which Western critics have called crimes against humanity.
In November, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the Myanmar military's operations in Rakhine state "ethnic cleansing." Washington followed up in December with sanctions on a top Myanmar general.
But if anything, the Myanmar government's stance is hardening. It has denied entry to Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur who normally visits twice a year to investigate human rights issues in the Southeast Asian nation, according to Lee. Two Reuters reporters were arrested in December for allegedly possessing internal documents related to security forces.
Myanmar's breathing room comes from a small but significant group of nations with which it has deep economic ties. When the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution last December on the human rights situation in the embattled country by a vote of 122 to 10, with 24 abstentions, among those voting nay or not at all were China, India, Japan and a majority of Southeast Asian neighbors.
China, Myanmar's biggest backer, has protected its neighbor in the U.N. Security Council because it sees the country's access to the Indian Ocean as vital for Beijing's ambitious Belt and Road infrastructure development initiative. Japan and India also abstained for economic reasons.