Global condemnation has rained down on Myanmar since August 25 when a military crackdown on Rohingya insurgents prompted an exodus of nearly 700,000 of the stateless minority to Bangladesh.
Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi has borne the brunt of the outcry and been stripped of a welter of honours from her days fighting for democracy under Myanmar’s junta.
But Senior General Min Aung Hlaing controls the army and oversaw the “clearance operations” on Rohingya villages, which the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing.
The military man was nominated for the award by Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn on August 21, 2017 — days before the crackdown — “for support and service to Thailand’s army”, according to palace mouthpiece the Royal Gazette.
Min Aung Hlaing posted a photo to his official Facebook page of him smiling alongside his Thai counterpart as he received the “Knight Grand Cross First Class of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant” in Bangkok.
It was awarded “to show the long and close relations” between the two countries, the Royal Thai Armed Forces said in a statement.
But Matt Smith, of campaign group Fortify Rights, said Thailand should support calls for accountability and justice in neighbouring Myanmar rather than honouring its top military official.
“This is a man responsible for a military committing mass atrocities with complete impunity,” he said, in reference to widespread allegations his forces raped and murdered Rohingya during the crackdown.
Junta-run Thailand defended the decision to decorate the powerful general.
“It’s tradition to give a royal decoration to supreme commanders of foreign countries,” Defence Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Kongcheep Tantravanich said.
This week the US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley urged the Security Council to ensure Myanmar’s military answers for its campaign against the Rohingya.
The army has said it did not target civilians and has only admitted to killing “terrorists”.
Since winning elections in 2015, Suu Kyi’s civilian government has been in a delicate power-sharing arrangement with Min Aung Hlaing.
The US embassy in Bangkok did not immediately comment on whether Min Aung Hlaing would visit military exercises held in Thailand this week, where Myanmar’s participation as an observer has sparked criticism.
Thailand has remained close to Myanmar despite friction over the Rohingya crisis within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which follows a policy of not interfering in the affairs of other bloc members.