Aung San Suu Kyi has defended her handling of renewed violence in western Myanmar, where a crackdown has displaced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims.
In her first spoken remarks since the crisis started in Rakhine state last month, the de facto Myanmar leader said her government, the first to be civilian-led in decades, was facing its “biggest challenge”.
“It is a little unreasonable to expect us to solve the issue in 18 months,” she told the Delhi-based network Asian News International. “The situation in Rakhine has been such since many decades. It goes back to pre-colonial times.”
Aung San Suu Kyi said the government needed to “take care of everybody who is in our country, whether or not they are our citizens”.
“Our resources are not as complete and adequate as we would like them to be but still, we try our best and we want to make sure that everyone is entitled to the protection of the law,” she said.
The United Nations has warned that up to 300,000 Rohingya could stream into neighbouring Bangladesh as they flee “clearance operations” by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces.
On Wednesday a post on Aung San Suu Kyi’s Facebook page blamed “terrorists” for “a huge iceberg of misinformation” about the violence, and made no mention of the Rohingya who had fled.
The 1991 Nobel peace prize winner has been repeatedly urged to exercise influence over the military leaders who controlled the government for decades until 2015.
The army says it is rooting out “terrorists” among the ethnic Muslim population, including fighters from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), an insurgent force that attacked dozens of security sites on 25 August.
For decades the 1.1 million Rohingya in majority-Buddhist Myanmar have been deemed illegal immigrants and denied citizenship or access to most government services. In the past five years they have been targeted in military campaigns that the UN has said could “very likely” constitute crimes against humanity.
Aung San Suu Kyi said the government still needed to “decide how to differentiate terrorists from innocents”.
The Myanmar government claims about 400 have been killed so far, though UN officials in the country have estimated the death toll at more than 1,000.
Hundreds of thousands more people have been displaced including the 164,400 Rohingya estimated to have crossed into neighbouring Bangladesh in the past fortnight.
The surge of refugees – many sick or badly wounded – has strained the resources of aid agencies and communities already helping hundreds of thousands from previous spasms of violence in Myanmar. Many have no shelter, and aid agencies are racing to provide clean water, sanitation and food.
On Thursday, the escaped residents of one village, Tula Toli, told the Guardian they were cornered by Burmese soldiers on sandy banks near their homes and fired upon, some of their relatives drowning as they tried to flee.
Their accounts tallied with those of other Rohingya who have described large-scale violence perpetrated by Myanmar troops and Buddhist mobs who allegedly set fire to their homes, spraying bullets indiscriminately, stabbing civilians and ordering them to abandon their homes or be killed.
Journalists taken to parts of Rakhine by the military on Thursday reported seeing new fires burning in villages that had been abandoned by Rohingya people, raising doubts about government claims that members of the minority group have been burning their own homes.
About two dozen journalists saw the fires in Gawdu Zara village in northern Rakhine state on the government-controlled trip. A villager who emerged from the smoke said police and Rakhine Buddhists had set the fires. The villager ran off before he could be asked anything else.
Myanmar says its forces are fighting a legitimate campaign against terrorists responsible for a string of attacks on the police and army since last October. Officials blame Rohingya militants for killing non-Muslims and burning their homes.
“We need to wipe out the threat of the terrorism in those regions,” Ko Ko Hlaing, a presidential adviser of the previous government, said on Thursday at a forum arranged by military-owned media to discuss the crisis.
He said rehabilitation and development were important and the citizenship issue needed to be settled, but the first priority was “the detoxification of the dangerous ideology of extremism”.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, on Thursday posted what he said were “photos of Bengalis setting fire to their houses”.
The pictures of several sword-wielding women wearing headscarfs and men in Islamic prayer caps setting a house on fire, which were published in one of the country’s leading newspapers, were also shared widely by the military.
But the photographs were criticised on social media with some pointing to signs they said showed the photos had been staged.
The UN secretary general, António Guterres, warned on Wednesday that the violence in the country verged on ethnic cleansing and could destabilise the wider region.
Myanmar has said it is negotiating with China and Russia to ensure they block any potential security council resolutions on the crisis.
Associated Press and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report