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U.S. Vice President Mike Pence criticized Myanmar's military for the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in a meeting with the country's leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday, and said he was keen to hear that those responsible for the violence would be held accountable.
"The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse," he told Suu Kyi in a brief meeting with the media before they went into private talks on the sidelines of a Asia-Pacific summit in Singapore.
"I am anxious to hear the progress that you are making of holding those accountable who are responsible for the violence that displaced so many hundreds of thousands and created such suffering, including the loss of life," he added.
He said Washington was also keen to hear about progress in making it possible for the Rohingya to voluntarily return to the western Myanmar state of Rakhine from vast refugees camps in southern Bangladesh where they now live.
The United States has accused the military of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority who are widely reviled in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. U.N.-mandated investigators have accused the military of unleashing a campaign of killings, rape and arson with "genocidal intent".
Myanmar says its operations in Rakhine were a legitimate response to attacks on security forces by Rohingya insurgents in August last year.
Suu Kyi, responding to Pence, said: "Of course people have different points of view but the point is that you should exchange these views and try to understand each other better."
"In a way we can say that we understand our country better than any other country does and I'm sure you will say the same of yours, that you understand your country better than anybody else," she added.
Amnesty International this week withdrew its most prestigious human rights prize from Suu Kyi, accusing her of perpetuating human rights abuses by not speaking out about violence against the Rohingya. Once hailed as a champion in the fight for democracy, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner has been stripped of a series of international honors over the Rohingya exodus.
Pence also said that Washington wanted to see a free and democratic press in Myanmar, and the jailing of two journalists last year was "deeply troubling" for millions of Americans. "In America, we believe in our democratic institutions and ideals, including a free and independent press," he said.
He did not mention by name Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters journalists who were arrested in Yangon in December 2017. They were found guilty in September of breaching the Official Secrets Act and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Pence "raised the case of two Reuters journalists in particular and raised the request that a pardon could be made," a senior White House official told reporters on condition of anonymity. "They had a very candid exchange of views on that." The official declined to comment on Suu Kyi's response in the closed-door meeting.
On Nov. 5, lawyers for the two Reuters reporters lodged an appeal against their conviction. At the time of their arrest in December, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were working on a Reuters investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim villagers during an army crackdown in Rakhine state. Reuters published its investigation into the massacre on Feb. 8.