Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi said on Tuesday that she is committed to restoring stability and peace in the country’s violence-wracked Rakhine state and appealed to the diplomatic community to help determine why hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled the area while more than half of the Rohingya population has remained.
A Muslim insurgent group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) carried out armed attacks on three border police stations in northern Rakhine state in October 2016, which were followed by a security crackdown and clashes during which about 90,000 Rohingya Muslims fled their homes amid indiscriminate killings, torture, arson, and rape.
A more recent ARSA attack on 30 police outposts and an army base on Aug. 25 prompted further security operations during which more than 410,000 Rohingya fled similar violence blamed on Myanmar security forces. They have since been seeking refuge in neighboring Bangladesh.
“We are committed to the restoration of peace, stability and rule of law throughout the state,” Aung San Suu Kyi said on Tuesday during a speech to diplomats and personnel from United Nations agencies in the capital Naypyidaw.
“The security forces have been instructed to adhere strictly to the Code of Conduct in carrying out security operations, to exercise all due restraint, and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians,” she said.
“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,” she said.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who avoided using the words “Rohingya” or “Bengalis” to refer to the Muslims, said there have been no armed clashes or clearance operations since Sept. 5, despite numerous reports by Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh during the past three weeks that Myanmar forces and Buddhist mobs have been indiscriminately killing civilians and burning their homes.
Myanmar’s government, in turn, has accused the Rohingya of torching their own villages.
“Nevertheless, 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. We would like to talk to those who have fled as well as those who have stayed.”
She added that the majority of the 1.1 million Muslims in Rakhine state have not fled and that more than 50 percent of their villages are still intact.
“They are as they were before the attacks took place,” she said. “We would like to know why.”
“This is what I think we have to work towards,” Aung San Suu Kyi said. “Not just looking at the problems, but also looking at the areas where there are no problems. Why have we been able to avoid these problems in certain areas? For this reason, we would like to invite the members of our diplomatic community to join us in our endeavour to learn more from the Muslims who have integrated successfully into the Rakhine state.”
She also said Myanmar will soon begin a nationality verification process for refugees who have fled in accordance with a 1993 agreement with Bangladesh that allows Rohingya who can prove residency in Myanmar to return to the country.
Not afraid of scrutiny
Aung San Suu Kyi also said that Myanmar is not afraid of scrutiny by the international community over the Rakhine crisis, even though U.N. officials have called the crisis “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and issued calls for authorities to end military operations and allow humanitarian access in the region.
“I am aware of the fact that the world’s attention is focused on the situation in Rakhine state,” she said.
“As I said at the [U.N.] General Assembly last year, as a responsible member of the community of nations, Myanmar does not fear international scrutiny and we are committed to a sustainable solution that would lead to peace, stability and development for all communities within that state,” she said.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who serves as Myanmar’s state counselor and foreign affairs minister, is not attending the U.N. General Assembly, the annual meeting of diplomats and leaders from 193 countries, in New York this week, citing the Rakhine crisis at home.
When asked by RFA during an exclusive interview following her address why she has asked for help from the international community in determining why Rohingya have fled en masse though security operations ended on Sept. 5, Aung San Suu Kyi said, “Nobody can live in isolation in this age.”
“Globalization is the norm, and we need to have enough courage to associate globally too,” she said. “So, if we prohibit outside visits [to Rakhine], it’ll be like we have something to hide. In the end, we have to rely on ourselves for our country’s development.”
The Myanmar government has so far refused to grant visas to a U.N. mandated fact-finding mission appointed earlier this year to look into reports of atrocities in Rakhine state.
After Aung san Suu Kyi’s speech, Myanmar’s Defense Minister Lieutenant General Sein Win told reporters that accusations by the international community that the military has committed rights abuses in northern Rakhine were untrue and regrettable.
“As the state counselor said, we are carrying out the operations in accordance with the law,” he said. “And if they are not carried out according to the law, we will take action according to the law against those who did not. We will take action against those who violate the law.”
“As for the international accusations [of rights violations by security forces], I have to say it is regrettable, because those are not true,” he said.
Sein Win also said the army is not using force out of proportion, but just the necessary amount.
Criticism from abroad
Rohingya living in Malaysia criticized Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech for not acknowledging the violence that Muslims in northern Rakhine have endured at the hands of the military following the Aug. 25 attacks.
Muhammad Nur Islam, a Rohingya who is managing director of Rohingya Vision TV in the capital Kuala Lumpur, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, that Aung San Suu Kyi is complicit in "the genocide" occurring in Rakhine.
“People are dying,” he said. “What is she going to say? Her old style of image is not going to work anymore. She is a part of the genocide. She is complicit. It is in her hands to stop this, but she isn’t going to stop it.”
“She’s making the decision to kill these people, and on top of that is blaming it on the Rohingya, calling them terrorists,” he said.
Salim Majid, a Rohingya journalist based in Kuala Lumpur, noted the number of Rohingya villages that have been burned in northern Rakhine and the refugees carrying the elderly on their backs trying to escape the violence and reach the Bangladesh border.
“Those who are not killed in the villages die on the way to the border,” he said. “Is Aung San Suu Kyi blind?”
London-based Amnesty International reacted to Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech by accusing her of “burying her head in the sand” about the violence in Rakhine.
“Aung San Suu Kyi today demonstrated that she and her government are still burying their heads in the sand over the horrors unfolding in Rakhine state,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in a statement. “At times, the speech amounted to little more than a mix of untruths and victim blaming.”
“There is overwhelming evidence that security forces are engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing,” he said. “While it was positive to hear Aung San Suu Kyi condemn human rights violations in Rakhine state, she is still silent about the role of security forces in this.”
Human Rights Watch said Tuesday that fresh analysis of satellite imagery from northern Rakhine, made possible because of a clearing of monsoon cloud on Sept. 16, shows the near total destruction of 214 villages in northern Rakhine.
The group repeated its call for world leaders meeting at the U.N. this week to adopt a General Assembly resolution condemning the Myanmar military’s “ethnic cleansing” and for the U.N. Security Council to impose targeted sanctions and an arms embargo on the country.
Reported by Khin Maung Soe for RFA’s Myanmar Service and by Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur for BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. Translated by Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.