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Myanmar Rohingya crisis panel head says its credibility intact despite Richardson's departure

Surakiart Sathirathai, a former Thai foreign minister and Chairman of the new Rakhine State Advisory Board gestures during an interview with Reuters in Bangkok, Thailand February 1, 2018. REUTERS/Juarawee Kittisilpa

(reuters_tickers)

By Panu Wongcha-um

BANGKOK (Reuters) - The head of an international panel set up by Myanmar to advise on its Rohingya Muslim crisis, after hundreds of thousands fled the country in fear for their lives, said its credibility was intact despite the departure of its most prominent member.

Surakiart Sathirathai, a former Thai foreign minister, told Reuters in Bangkok on Thursday that the panel's remaining nine members would draw on their experience to advise on how to act on recommendations of an earlier commission headed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

"I think that both the four international board members and five Myanmar members have a lot of social capital. We have a lot of experience and we will draw on that experience to ... provide advice," Surakiart said in an interview.

His comments came days after veteran U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson quit the panel advising Aung San Suu Kyi's government, saying it was conducting a "whitewash" and that he feared it would be used as a "cheerleading squad".

Around 688,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since Aug. 25 last year after the Myanmar military cracked down in the northern part of Rakhine state, amid witness reports of killings, looting and rape, in response to militant attacks on security forces.

Many in Buddhist-majority Myanmar regard the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The United Nations described Myanmar's crackdown as ethnic cleansing, which Myanmar denies.

The advisory board's nine remaining members have rejected Richardson's criticism of the panel. Suu Kyi's office said her government had asked Richardson to step down.

"It is unfortunate ... that Governor Richardson decided to grab headlines," Surakiart said.

"...There is a big gap of international interpretation and domestic interpretation of what has happened in Rakhine state and one of the things that the advisory board would like to do is find a way to narrow this gap."

Richardson, a former governor of the U.S. state of New Mexico, told Reuters last month that Suu Kyi was upset when he suggested that there should be an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya, whose bodies were found in a mass grave in a Rakhine village.

Myanmar's military said its security forces were responsible for those deaths.

Richardson also raised the case of two Reuters reporters who were arrested on Dec. 12 on suspicion of violating Myanmar's Official Secrets Act, a colonial-era secrecy law.

If convicted, Myanmar nationals Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, face up to 14 years in jail.

Surakiart said he and other panel members had been "reassured again and again that the case would be accorded with the due process of law and criminal justice procedure".

Surakiart added that the panel wants to encourage "more media access" to Rakhine.

The two Reuters reporters were refused bail by a Yangon court on Thursday.

An advisory team led by former U.N. Secretary-General Annan last year suggested a review of a Myanmar law that links citizenship and ethnicity and leaves most Rohingya stateless.

(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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