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Pence confronts Myanmar's Suu Kyi over Rohingya persecution

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Image: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, right, meets Myanmar leader Aung San
Vice President Mike Pence meets Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Singapore on Wednesday. -
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Bernat Armangue
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SINGAPORE — Vice President Mike Pence confronted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday over the "violence and persecution" of her country's Rohingya Muslims.

Sat next to Suu Kyi and with the news media present, Pence said her country's atrocities were "without excuse." The vice president called on her to hold those responsible to account.

Suu Kyi was once an arch opponent of her country's government, earning her the Nobel Peace Prize and cementing her status as an international human-rights icon.

But after she became de facto leader in 2015 she has been criticized for staying silent about her own military's violence against the Rohingya. The operation involving Buddhist militias has left thousands dead and 700,000 displaced in what the United Nations says is ethnic cleansing.

A Rohingya child stands with newly arrived refugees who fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar.
A Rohingya child stands with newly arrived refugees who fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar.K M Asad

A recent United Nations report detailed mass killings and gang rapes with genocidal intent in the crackdown that drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar's Rakhine state into Bangladesh.

Pence also implored Suu Kyi to protect the rights of a free press. Two Reuters journalists remain imprisoned nearly one year after being arrested while reporting on the Rohingya crisis.

"In America, we believe in democratic institutions and ideals, including a free and independent press," Pence said. "The arrests and jailing of two journalists last fall was deeply troubling to millions of Americans."

The meeting between the two leaders and their country's delegations took place on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Singapore. Pence repeatedly thanked Suu Kyi for initiating the meeting.

Suu Kyi was once heralded for her efforts to shepherd democratic reforms in the country, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and enduring 15 years under house arrest.

Her party, the National League for Democracy, won elections in 2015 after she was released and she became Myanmar's de facto leader. The military still holds significant power, however.

Many international observers have been dismayed that she has remained largely silent about the treatment of the Rohingya. This week, Amnesty International withdrew the human rights award it presented to her in 2009.

Suu Kyi responded to Pence's opening statement by suggesting that he did not understand Myanmar like she did.

"We can say that we understand our country better than any other country does," she said. "And I'm sure you will say the same of yours if you understand your own country better than anybody else does."