With Myanmar drawing condemnation for violence that has driven at least 370,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee the country, the government said Wednesday that its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, would skip this week's U.N. General Assembly.
Suu Kyi was missing the assembly, which opened Tuesday and runs through Sept. 25, in order to address domestic security issues, presidential office spokesman Zaw Htay said. Suu Kyi is not Myanmar's president — her official titles are state counselor and foreign minister — but she in effect serves as leader of the Southeast Asian nation also known as Burma.
Zaw Htay said that, with President Htin Kyaw hospitalized, the second vice president would attend the U.N. meeting.
"The first reason [Suu Kyi cannot attend] is because of the Rakhine terrorist attacks," Zaw Htay said. "The state counselor is focusing to calm the situation in Rakhine state. There are circumstances. The second reason is there are people inciting riots in some areas. We are trying to take care of the security issue in many other places. The third is that we are hearing that there will be terrorist attacks and we are trying to address this issue."
The crisis erupted Aug. 25 when an insurgent Rohingya group attacked police outposts in Rakhine. That prompted the military to launch "clearance operations" against the rebels, setting off a wave of violence that has left hundreds dead and thousands of homes burned — mostly Rohingya in both cases.
The government blames Rohingya for the attacks, but journalists who visited the region found evidence that raises doubts about its claims that Rohingya set fire to their own homes.
Many of the Rohingya who flooded into refugee camps in Bangladesh told of soldiers shooting indiscriminately, burning their homes and warning them to leave or die. Others said they were attacked by Buddhist mobs.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who lived under house arrest for many years under a military junta that ultimately gave way to an elected government, has faced a torrent of international criticism and pressure since the crisis erupted.
On Tuesday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called the killing of Muslims a political disaster and called Suu Kyi a "brutal woman." U.N. human rights chief Zeid Raad Hussein said the Rohingya were victims of what "seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing."
Bangladesh has been overwhelmed with the massive influx of Rohingya, many of whom arrived hungry and traumatized after walking for days through jungles or being packed into rickety wooden boats.
Before Aug. 25, Bangladesh had already been housing about 500,000 Rohingya refugees who fled earlier flashes of violence including anti-Muslim riots in 2012.
Prime Minister Sheik Hasina Wajed has pledged to help the new arrivals, but demanded that Myanmar "take their nationals back."
With two camps packed beyond capacity, the government said it would provide 2,000 acres for a new camp in the border district of Cox's Bazar. Many of the new arrivals were staying in schools or were huddling under tarps in makeshift settlements along roads and in open fields.
Basic resources were scarce, including food, clean water and medical aid.
Dozens of foreign diplomats and aid agency officials were set to meet Rohingya refugees Wednesday near the Kutupalong refugee camp, said Kazi Abdur Rahman, additional deputy commissioner in Cox's Bazar district.
"A humanitarian crisis is going on here," he said. The diplomats "will visit camps, talk to them, see their condition. We need to work together during such a serious crisis."
Two human rights groups have accused the U.N. Security Council of ignoring the crisis.
"This is an international peace and security crisis," and there is no excuse for the Security Council "sitting on its hands," Louis Charbonneau of Human Rights Watch said Tuesday alongside representatives from Amnesty International at the U.N. headquarters
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the world's largest Muslim body, urged Myanmar to allow in U.N. monitors so that they can investigate what it alleged was systematic brutality against the Rohingya. The U.N. Human Rights Council approved an investigative mission this year, but Myanmar in June refused to allow it to enter. An envoy's visit in July was met with protests.
The Rohingya Muslim minority has faced decades of discrimination and persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship despite centuries-old roots in the country.
On Tuesday, the president's office said Myanmar's government had established a committee to address security and economic development in Rohingya areas. It said the 15-member committee would work on implementing recommendations made last month by a commission led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.