Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday said that she does not fear global scrutiny over the Rohingya crisis and pledged to hold rights violators to account and to resettle some of the 410,000 Muslims who have fled Myanmar.
However, Suu Kyi refused to blame Myanmar’s army, as the UN chief demanded an end to the military campaign and a better deal for the Muslim minority.
In an address timed to pre-empt censure at the UN General Assembly in New York—delivered entirely in English and aimed squarely at an international audience—she called for patience and understanding of the crisis which has driven some 421,000 Rohingya out of her mainly Buddhist country.
The Nobel Peace laureate vowed to resettle some refugees but offered no solutions to halt what the UN calls army-led “ethnic cleansing” in Rakhine state, where soldiers are accused of burning Rohingya out of their homes.
Her speech failed to quell international outrage, with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issuing the blunt demand and Britain’s defence ministry saying it had suspended training courses for the Myanmar military in light of the violence in Rakhine.
“The authorities in Myanmar must end the military operations and allow unhindered humanitarian access,” Guterres told the opening of the General Assembly.
“They must also address the grievances of the Rohingya, whose status has been left unresolved for far too long.”
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, also demanded the end of the military operation and denounced “what we know is ethnic cleansing”, in his speech to the General Assembly.
Amnesty International joined the outcry, saying Suu Kyi was “burying her head in the sand” over documented army abuses and claims of rape, murder and the systematic clearing of scores of villages.
Supporters and observers say the 72-year-old Suu Kyi lacks the authority to rein in the military, which ran the country for 50 years and only recently ceded limited powers to her civilian government.
Myanmar’s army acts without civilian oversight and makes all security decisions, including its notorious scorched earth counter-insurgency operations.
“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.
Communal violence has torn through Rakhine state since Rohingya militants staged deadly attacks on police posts on August 25.
An army-led fightback has left scores dead and sent hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing into Bangladesh.
In her 30-minute speech Suu Kyi reached out to critics who have condemned her failure to speak up for the stateless Rohingya.
Myanmar stood ready, she said, to repatriate refugees in accordance with a “verification” process agreed with Bangladesh in the early 1990s.
“Those who have been verified as refugees from this country will be accepted without any problems,” she added.
In less than a month just under half of Rakhine’s one-million-strong Rohingya minority has poured into Bangladesh, where they languish in overcrowded refugee camps.
It was not immediately clear how many would qualify to return.
But their claims to live in Myanmar are at the heart of a toxic debate about the group, who are denied citizenship by the state and considered to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi’s repatriation pledge “is new and significant”, said Richard Horsey, an independent analyst based in Myanmar, explaining it would in principle allow for the return of those who can prove residence in Myanmar—rather than citizenship.
But in the monsoon-soaked shanties in Bangladesh, there was anguish among refugees over how they would meet any requirements.
“We don’t have any papers,” said 55-year-old Abdur Razzak.
“If the government is honestly speaking to resolve our crisis then we are ready to go back now,” he added. “Nobody wants to live in such squalid conditions as a refugee.”
Suu Kyi insisted army “clearance operations” finished on September 5.
But AFP reporters have seen homes on fire in the days since then, while multiple testimonies from refugees arriving in Bangladesh suggest such operations have continued.
Without blaming any single group, Suu Kyi promised to
punish anyone found guilty of abuses “regardless of their
religion, race or political position”
And she insisted Rakhine was not a state in flames, saying: “More than 50 percent of the villages of Muslims are intact.”
Around 170 Rohingya villages have been razed, the government admits. Rights groups say satellite evidence shows the damage is more widespread.
While stories of weary and hungry Rohingya have dominated global headlines, there is little sympathy for them among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority.
Around 30,000 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists as well as Hindus have also been displaced—apparent targets of August 25 attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
Loathing for the Rohingya has brought the public, including pro-democracy activists, into an unlikely alignment with an army that once had them under its heel.
Suu Kyi’s speech was warmly welcomed in Myanmar even though no Burmese subtitles were provided.
“She told the real situation to the world on behalf of Myanmar people,” Yu Chan Myae told AFP.