BANGKOK - Thailand awarded Myanmar's army chief a royal decoration on Friday amid allegations of crimes by Myanmar security forces against Rohingya Muslims that have prompted international condemnation.
Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar's Rakhine state and crossed into Bangladesh since last August, when attacks on security posts by insurgents triggered a military crackdown that the United Nations has said amounts to ethnic cleansing, with reports of arson attacks, murder and rape.
Myanmar army commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was granted the Knight Grand Cross (First Class) of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant at a ceremony in Bangkok, according to the general's official website.
The website also showed a picture of the commander-in-chief shaking hands with his Thai counterpart, General Tarnchaiyan Srisuwan.
Buddhist-majority Thailand often gives royal decorations to army chiefs of other countries who are supportive of Thailand's army, Thai army spokesman Lieutenant General Nothapol Boonngam said.
"He received the honour because of our military relations. We support each other's missions and exchange visits. Our armies have many joint activities," Nothapol told Reuters, adding that the Thai army had requested Hlaing's award since last year.
"This is a separate issue from human rights."
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.
Earlier this week, Thailand and the United States kicked off the annual Cobra Gold military drills in Thailand - the largest such exercises in the Asia-Pacific region.
Thailand invited Myanmar as observers to the disaster relief and humanitarian assistance portions of Cobra Gold, prompting criticism from rights groups who questioned why a military accused of ethnic cleansing was being given access.
The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok this week said Myanmar was not a participant in any of the exercises.