Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi paid a brief, unannounced visit to conflict-ridden northern Rakhine state on Thursday, the first time the country’s de facto leader has entered the area since a brutal military operation drove more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims to neighboring Bangladesh.
Aung San Suu Kyi flew to the state capital Sittwe where she boarded a military helicopter to take her to Maungdaw and Buithdaung townships, the epicenters of the recent violence and ethnic strife following deadly Aug. 25 attacks by the militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and a subsequent military crackdown.
The Nobel laureate has come under fire by the international community for not speaking out about the treatment of the Rohingya in what the U.N. and others call “ethnic cleansing” in the region — an allegation Myanmar has rejected.
Aung San Suu Kyi discussed with Muslim religious leaders the need to live peacefully in northern Rakhine and explained the government’s humanitarian aid plans for the region during a meeting with the ethnic Mro, Khami, and Daingnet minority groups.
Under tight security on her one-day trip, she visited an ethnic Mro ethnic village called Kone Tine that was burned down after the deadly Aug. 25 attacks by ARSA and met with residents of Pantawpyin Muslim village.
“Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi asked us if we have already started resettlement work for the villagers, and we answered that we have started them,” said Maung Hla, administrator of Kone Tine.
A resident of Pantawpyin village said that when Aung San Suu Kyi met Muslim villagers, she asked them to speak openly with her about what they need and what difficulties they face.
Aung San Suu Kyi also met with volunteers who are participating in the government’s humanitarian work to help Maungdaw residents.
One volunteer told RFA’s Myanmar Service that volunteers from around the country will be trained to perform humanitarian work on Nov. 6-8 in the country’s commercial capital Yangon, and volunteers from Maungdaw township will receive 20 days of instruction.
Groups of 40 volunteers each will coordinate with the government to survey areas affected by recent violence and deliver goods to victims for 20 days, and will then be replaced by another group that will continue the work.
“She told us how to perform humanitarian work effectively and systematically,” said volunteer Htet Paing Soe. “She also told us that we are doing not only humanitarian work, such as delivering goods and recording information, but also working for peace and development in the region and helping to alleviate trauma.”
Aung San Suu Kyi also inspected the Myanmar-Bangladesh Friendship Bridge that connects Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh in Taungpyo Letwe village, one of two border checkpoints where Myanmar will accept returning Rohingya.
Myanmar has blamed Bangladesh for stalling on the points of a 1993 agreement between the two nations that would allow the return of Rohingya refugees who have fled, saying that the country is holding out for more international aid funding. Bangladesh has denied the accusation.
Myanmar’s home affairs minister Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe; border affairs minister Lieutenant General Ye Aung; labor, immigration and population minister Thein Swe; and social welfare, relief and resettlement minister Win Myat Aye joined Aung San Suu Kyi on the trip.
Prominent Myanmar business executives who last month pledged millions of dollars to rebuild ravaged northern Rakhine under the government’s newly created Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine State (UEHRD), also accompanied her. Aung San Suu Kyi is chairperson of the body.
Some ethnic Rakhine residents told RFA they were unhappy that Aung San Suu Kyi only met with Muslims and not with them and local NGOs.
Aung San Suu Kyi's last visit to Rakhine state was during the 2015 election campaign that eventually brought her National League for Democracy (NLD) party to power.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.