Fact check: Aung San Suu Kyi's speech on the Rohingya crisis

Address by de facto leader of Myanmar on forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Muslims contained truths, half-truths and falsehoods

Following weeks of silence in the face of claims of ethnic cleansing against Myanmar’s Rohingya population, the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has delivered a controversial speech.

In it, she claimed her government did not “fear international scrutiny” over its handling of violence in Rakhine state. But she was criticised for what some saw as her ongoing reluctance to address the crisis and the government’s role in it.

How do Aung San Suu Kyi’s remarks stand up to scrutiny?

I think it is only fitting that I should remind you today that our government has not yet been in power for even 18 months.

True: Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide election in late 2015, ending decades of military rule. The army keeps controls of three key ministries – defence, home affairs and border affairs – making for weakened and arguably less effective civilian government in the face of the crisis.

After several months of seemingly quiet and peace, on 25 August, 30 police outposts … were attacked by armed groups.

Half true: While the current wave of violence began on 25 August with attacks by militant Rohingya groups, there was no “quiet and peace” in northern Rakhine, where the persecuted minority live. Before the attack, hundreds of Rohingya were prevented for weeks from going to work or fetching food.

The army was conducting regular, sometimes deadly, “clearance operations”. Rohingya militants have also been accused of killing suspected government informants.

It is not the intention of the Myanmar government to apportion blame or to abnegate responsibility. We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence.

False: The government and state media in majority-Buddhist Myanmar have squarely and repeatedly blamed the conflict on “extremist terrorists”, without condemning widely-reported abuses by the security forces or ethnic Buddhist mobs.

Human rights violations and all other acts that impair stability and harmony and undermine the rule of law will be addressed in accordance with strict norms of justice.

Half true: There are very few records of Myanmar security forces stationed in Rakhine state being disciplined. Myanmar said in January that four police officers had been detained after a video emerged of them beating Rohingya. It is not clear if they were prosecuted. A government investigation this year into alleged military abuses found the accusations were groundless.

Those who have had to flee their homes are many – not just Muslims and Rakhines, but also small minority groups, such as the Daing-net, Mro [Kamee], Thet, Mramagyi and Hindus, of whose presence most of the world is totally unaware.

True: International attention has focused on the burning of Rohingya villages, confirmed by satellite imagery, and the 421,000 Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh. However, there are also reports of roughly 30,000 members of other ethnicities who have been displaced.

Since 5 September, there have been no armed clashes and there have been no clearance operations.

False: Setting villages ablaze – which can be seen from Bangladesh – continues, while armed clashes have been heard regularly in Rakhine since 5 September. Aung San Suu Kyi’s own office reported on its Facebook page that security personnel have conducted “clearance operations” since then.

Rohingya fleeing the violence in Myanmar to find refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh.
Rohingya fleeing the violence in Myanmar to find refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh. Photograph: via ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock

More than 50% of the villages of Muslims are intact.

Half true: The destruction of Rohingya villages has been systematic and seemingly indiscriminate across a large area. Citing satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch says 214 villages have been almost completely destroyed. A week ago, the government said 40% of villages targeted by the army were now empty and burnings have not ceased since then.

As there is no unfettered access to Rakhine for journalists and other observers, it is impossible to verify an exact percentage. Equally, not all Muslims in Rakhine are ethnically Rohingya, further distorting attempts to define the conflict through statistics.

All people living in the Rakhine state have access to education and healthcare services without discrimination.

False: Most Rohingya are denied citizenship and access to essential government services in Myanmar. Medical care is highly restricted. Many are unable to attend school or university, especially Rohingya living in internal camps where they need special permission to leave.

Since December 2016, local and foreign media groups have been given access to areas previously off-limits in Rakhine. Even after the outbreaks on 25 August, we arranged for several media groups to visit the afflicted areas.

Half true: The government has organised a limited number of trips for journalists, but blocked access completely to some areas. During a recent official visit, several reporters observed ethnic Rakhine Buddhists burning a Rohingya village.

There has been a call for the repatriation of refugees who have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh. We are prepared to start the verification process at any time.

Half true: Myanmar’s national security adviser was quoted as saying the government will only allow those who have “proof” of citizenship or another form of residence evidence to return. Having suffered repeated bouts of violence since the late 1970s, the Rohingya as an ethnic group are not widely recognised in Myanmar. They are instead referred to as “Bengali”, which ignores their historical ties to the country.

This makes the Rohingya officially stateless, meaning they would not be eligible under the current system. However, Aung San Suu Kyi hinted that “verified” refugees may be allowed to return, which might mean citizenship is not needed.

There have been allegations and counter-allegations.

True: There is now a vast cache of evidence that there have been atrocities committed in Rakhine against the Rohingya. Refugees with burn marks and bullet wounds have told of vicious army abuses. Satellite imagery shows Rohingya villages burnt to the ground while neighbouring Buddhist settlements remain intact. The UN’s top human rights office describes what is happening as a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing.

Meanwhile, the government and its supporters have only blamed “terrorists”.

We are now starting another round of humanitarian aid endeavour, which we hope will take care of all the peoples in the region.

Half true: Myanmar may begin to distribute food, water and medicine but it has been denounced for a blockade on international aid, including forbidding United Nations agencies from entering the conflict zone. Recently, the International Committee of the Red Cross has been afforded limited access.


Oliver Holmes, South-east Asia correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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