Thailand on Friday defended its decision to award the chief of Myanmar’s armed forces a royal decoration, despite allegations that a military crackdown led to killings and abuses in Rakhine state that forced almost 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing received the “Knight Grand Cross (First Class) of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant” during a ceremony in Bangkok on Thursday, according to his verified Facebook page, which has more than 1.3 million followers.
A photo on Min Aung Hlaing’s website showed him smiling while his Thai counterpart, Gen. Tarnchaiyan Srisuwan, pinned the medal to his chest.
The Royal Thai Armed Forces said the Myanmar general received the honor “to show the long and close relations” between Thailand and Myanmar, according to the Agence France-Presse news service.
Other reports said the officer was nominated for the honor by Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn on Aug. 21, 2017, four days before violence erupted in Rakhine state.
On Aug. 25, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents launched attacks against Myanmar government security outposts in Rakhine, which led to a military crackdown described by the U.N. as “ethnic cleansing.”
Myanmar’s government has consistently denied allegations that its military and security forces committed atrocities against Rohingya civilians. But it has banned independent news outlets from visiting areas where mass killings allegedly occurred.
“It’s a tradition to give a royal decoration to supreme commanders of foreign countries,” Thai Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Kongcheep Tantravanich told Reuters news agency on Friday, as he defended the presentation of the honor to Myanmar’s military chief.
“This is a separate issue from human rights,” he said.
The Burma Human Rights Network said Thailand had crossed a “red line” by granting the award to Hlaing because Thailand is seen as a place of refuge by many Rohingya and other minority groups fleeing persecution in Myanmar, also a Buddhist-majority country.
“This kind of person doesn’t deserve to win this great award,” Kway Win, the group’s executive director, told Reuters.
Human rights advocates interviewed by BenarNews also criticized the decision to honor the head of the Myanmar military, but asked that they not be identified for fear of being accused of violating Lese-Majeste, Thailand’s royal defamation law, which punishes anyone who “defames, insults or threatens" the king and his family with imprisonment of up to 15 years.
Playing down Myanmar’s presence
Min Aung Hlaing has cultivated long-term friendships with Thai officials, including those no longer in power. On Sept. 17, 2013, he was photographed shaking hands with then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Bangkok.
The criticism over Min Aung Hlaing’s award came three days after the United States played down the presence of Myanmar’s military attaché at the opening ceremony of Cobra Gold exercises in eastern Thailand.
Gen. Srisuwan, the Thai military chief who handed the award to Min Aung Hlaing, had acknowledged inviting the Myanmar diplomatic representative, whose presence at Cobra Gold angered human rights advocates.
The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok said earlier that Myanmar would not be participating in the largest joint military exercise in Southeast Asia, and it was not clear if Min Aung Hlaing would be attending the event, which runs through Feb. 23.
About 11,000 troops from Thailand, the U.S. and 27 other countries are taking part in the exercises at the U-Tapao Naval Air Base in Rayong province.