Aung San Suu Kyi says Myanmar does not fear scrutiny over Rohingya crisis

Leader and her government ‘burying their heads in the sand over the horrors unfolding in Rakhine’, says Amnesty

Aung San Suu Kyi has broken her silence on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, delivering a speech denounced as a “mix of untruths and victim-blaming” by Amnesty International.

In her first public address since a bloody military crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority that has been branded “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by the United Nations, the Nobel laureate did not criticise the army and said she did not “fear international scrutiny”.

“I’m aware of the fact that the world’s attention is focused on the situation in Rakhine state. As a responsible member of the community of nations Myanmar does not fear international scrutiny,” she said.

“There have been allegations and counter-allegations … We have to make sure those allegations are based on solid evidence before we take action,” she said in her speech from the capital, Naypyidaw.

She insisted there had been “no conflicts since 5 September and no clearance operations” against the country’s Muslim minority, a point disputed by those who have fled the violence.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who won worldwide admiration for her long fight against military rule, claimed the majority of Rohingya villages had not been affected by violence. She refrained from criticising the military – which has been accused of arson and indiscriminate killing – but said it had been instructed to exercise restraint and avoid “collateral damage” in its pursuit of insurgents.

Amnesty International said Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech showed the leader and her government were “burying their heads in the sand over the horrors unfolding in Rakhine state”.

“Aung San Suu Kyi’s claims that her government does not fear international scrutiny ring hollow,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s regional director for south-east Asia, who later described the speech as a “mix of untruths and victim-blaming”.

“If Myanmar has nothing to hide, it should allow UN investigators into the country, including Rakhine state. The government must also urgently allow humanitarian actors full and unfettered access to all areas and people in need in the region.”

Mark Farmaner, the director of Burma Campaign UK, said the speech was “business as usual, denial as usual”.

Rohingya refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh have described a brutal campaign of army attacks on civilians, while satellite imagery shows scores of Rohingya villages devastated by fire.

The UN’s migration agency says about 421,000 people have fled from Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh in less than a month amid the crackdown. Joel Millman, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said an estimated 20,000 people are flowing across the border every day.

Unicef spokeswoman Marixie Mercado said the UN children’s agency now estimates that over 250,000 children have fled Myanmar over the last 25 days.

In the Kutupalong refugee camp, Abdul Hafiz told Reuters that Rohingya once trusted Aung San Suu Kyi more than the military, which had not only ruled for half a century before, but also held her under house arrest for many years.

Now Hafiz said she was a “liar” and that Rohingya were suffering more than ever. He said Aung San Suu Kyi should give international journalists more access to the villages to document the destruction.

Aung San Suu Kyi had not spoken publicly about the crisis since fresh violence broke out on 25 August, although in a phone call to the Turkish president she said “terrorists” were behind an “iceberg of misinformation” about the situation.

Striking a less aggressive but defiant tone in her 30-minute televised speech, she said she was “deeply concerned” about the suffering of people caught up in the conflict.

“We are concerned to hear that numbers of Muslims are fleeing across the border to Bangladesh,” she said. “We want to find out why this exodus is happening.”

Aung San Suu Kyi said the country stood ready “at any time” to take back refugees subject to a verification process. However, it was not immediately clear how many of the Rohingya who had fled Myanmar would qualify to return as most are not treated as citizens.

Meanwhile, the head of a UN investigation into violence in Myanmar asked the UN human rights council for more time to examine allegations of mass killings, torture, sexual violence, the use of landmines and the burning of villages.

“We will go where the evidence leads us,” the fact-finding mission’s chairman, Marzuki Darusman, said on Tuesday, before requesting a six-month extension of the investigation to September 2018. He said Suu Kyi’s remarks on scrutiny “bode well for the fact-finding mission”.

Myanmar’s ambassador to the UN, Htin Lynn, said Darusman’s investigation was “not a helpful course of action” and the country was taking proportionate security measures against terrorists, and making efforts to restore peace.

During her speech, Aung San Suu Kyi mentioned the Rohingya by name only once, in reference to the armed militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Many in majority-Buddhist Myanmar – including several influential Islamophobic Buddhist monks – say the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been widely criticised – including by fellow Nobel laureates – for failing to speak out against the violence, urged the world to see Myanmar as a whole, and said it was sad that the international community was focused on only one of the country’s many problems.

“She is trying to claw back some degree of credibility with the international community, without saying too much that will get her in trouble with the [military] and Burmese people who don’t like the Rohingya in the first place,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

When Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament in 2012 there were high hopes that the Nobel peace prize winner would help heal Myanmar's entrenched ethnic divides.  

Some defenders at the time tried to argue that she was gagged by temporary political concerns because she had to hold on to the votes of nationalist Buddhists. However, her NLD party won a landslide victory in elections in 2015 and yet she remained conspicuously silent.

She has defended the government that she is part of in response to the recent wave of violence, sparking further widespread condemnation.

Her exact motivations remain opaque but the only thing she obviously stands to lose by speaking out is the support of the military power brokers who still ultimately control Myanmar. The only thing she could obviously hope to gain by her silence is more power and influence.

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After years of communal violence between persecuted Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists, the latest wave of violence flared in August when security forces launched a huge counter-offensive in response to coordinated attacks by Rohingya militants.

The violence has resulted in more than 421,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh, according to the UN, and displaced 30,000 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists as well as Hindus.

Aung San Suu Kyi cancelled a planned visit to the UN general assembly in New York.


Poppy McPherson in Yangon

The GuardianTramp

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