With nearly half of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim population having fled the country in the past three weeks, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the crisis publicly for the first time — and called it a mystery.
"We want to find out why this exodus is happening," Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar's governing party, said Tuesday in a nationally televised speech from the capital, Naypyidaw.
The reasons why more than 400,000 Rohingya have escaped over the border into Bangladesh have been well documented by human rights groups: The Myanmar army, responding to an Aug. 25 insurgent attack, is carrying out deadly "clearance operations" in the western state of Rakhine, shooting civilians as they flee and burning Rohingya villages to the ground. The United Nations' top human rights official called it a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."
But in a closely watched speech, Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who led the opposition to Myanmar's former military rulers, defended the army that once kept her under house arrest for more than a decade.
She accused the international community of overlooking the other challenges facing Myanmar, an overwhelmingly Buddhist country also known as Burma, where an estimated 1 million Rohingya Muslims have long complained of persecution.
"It is sad that in meeting our diplomatic community I am obliged to focus on a very few of our problems when there are so many which I think we can resolve together," Suu Kyi said in English, aiming her half-hour address at foreign diplomats and fellow Nobel laureates who have grown increasingly dismayed by the violence and her refusal to speak out in favor of the Rohingya.
It was a remarkable moment for Suu Kyi, who was once so isolated as a political prisoner that BBC radio broadcasts were her only link to the outside world. Now on the global stage, she appeared not as an icon of the struggle for democracy but as an embattled politician deflecting allegations of grave human rights abuses occurring on her watch.
Suu Kyi did not refer to the Rohingya by name, in keeping with the government's view that members of the ethnic and religious minority are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and not among the dozens of national ethnic groups officially recognized by Myanmar. Rohingya activists strongly dispute this, saying many families have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Suu Kyi said "the great majority of Muslims in Rakhine state have not joined the exodus" and invited international officials to visit the state to "learn more from the Muslims who have integrated successfully."
"More than 50% of the villages of Muslims are intact. They are as they were before the [Aug. 25] attacks took place," she said. "We would like to know why."
By downplaying the Rohingya's plight, Suu Kyi dashed hopes that she would use her moral authority and tremendous popularity at home to push for an end to an army campaign that seems designed to drive the minority group out of the country for good.
"This speech is very disappointing and could have been written by Myanmar's military," said Ronan Lee, a Myanmar researcher at Australia's Deakin University. "This is more of the same from Aung San Suu Kyi, who calls for calm but fails to call out the military for the human rights violations they continue to commit in Rakhine state."
Human rights groups also questioned Suu Kyi's claim that the army has carried out no operations in Rakhine since Sept. 5. Humanitarian workers and journalists in Bangladesh witnessed fires in Myanmar villages as recently as last week, and refugees have continued to stream across the border with accounts of soldiers burning their homes.
Richard Weir, a Myanmar researcher with the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said satellite sensors have detected "dozens of active fires" in Rakhine over the past two weeks. Northern parts of the state have been off-limits to outsiders.
"Aung San Suu Kyi's claim that security operations and clashes ended on Sept. 5 begs the question: Why were so many villages burned to the ground following that date?" Weir wrote in an email from Bangladesh.
Human Rights Watch said Tuesday that an analysis of satellite imagery showed tens of thousands of homes across 214 villages had been destroyed. Myanmar military officials have alleged that Rohingya villagers and insurgents set fire to the homes, but Human Rights Watch and others say there is no evidence to support that claim.
The nongovernmental organization called on the United Nations General Assembly, meeting this week in New York, to condemn the Myanmar military campaign and urged the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions and an arms embargo against the army.
Suu Kyi skipped the U.N. gathering to deal with the crisis in Rakhine, which has generated worldwide outrage, much of it directed at her near-silence on the issue. The speech Tuesday was her first national address since Aug. 25, when an insurgent group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army attacked police and army posts in Rakhine state, killing about a dozen security personnel.
Those sympathetic to Suu Kyi say her hands are tied because, as part of Myanmar's incomplete transition to democracy, the army still retains enormous power, including total control of security affairs and the civil service. They say she also risks alienating Myanmar's Buddhist majority, including some who gathered to watch the speech in Yangon, the largest city, carrying placards that read, in English, "We stand with Mother Suu."
In August, a commission headed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to evaluate the Rakhine crisis called on the government to end the "enforced segregation" of Buddhists and Muslims in the state, ensure access for humanitarian groups, revise citizenship laws that exclude the Rohingya and end restrictions on freedom of movement.
Suu Kyi said her government would act on the recommendations "within the shortest time possible." But she also indicated that the government would allow refugees to return to Myanmar only if their citizenship could be verified. That would in effect keep out the stateless Rohingya, who are denied any legal status in Myanmar, have at various times had their documents confiscated by authorities, and fled to Bangladesh in most cases without collecting their belongings.
"Many came only with the clothes on their backs," Weir said. "How will those people be verified when they are presumptively considered illegal immigrants and have fled their homes carrying little or nothing with them?"
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8:40 a.m.: This article was updated with background on Suu Kyi appearing as a politician versus her previous role as an activist.
7 a.m.. Sept. 19: This article was updated with statements from Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and additional details.