Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi cancelled a public appearance in Australia on Monday, a day after the end of a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders, as she continues to grapple with pressure from the international community over human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims during a military crackdown in Rakhine state.
Aung San Suu Kyi, 72, who holds the titles of state counselor and foreign affairs minister, said she would not give a keynote speech and conduct a question-and-answer session at the Lowy Institute think tank in Sydney on Tuesday because she was “not feeling well.” The event was then cancelled.
After attending a special three-day ASEAN-Australia summit, Aung San Suu Kyi remained in Australia on an official visit.
On Monday, she went to the capital Canberra for talks with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who said previously that he would broach the Rohingya crisis with her in private.
Aung San Suu Kyi touched on the Rohingya crisis at a private meeting with other Southeast Asian leaders during the summit, asking them for humanitarian relief and recovery efforts.
At a meeting of leaders at the summit in Sydney, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the issue “comprehensively [and] at some considerable length,” Britain’s The Guardian quoted Turnbull as saying.
“Aung San Suu Kyi ... seeks support from ASEAN and other nations to provide help from a humanitarian and capacity-building point-of-view,” he said. “Everyone seeks to end the suffering.”
But not all the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed to provide assistance.
“What I understand is that Australia and other ASEAN countries except Malaysia have given their understanding to Myanmar (Aung San Suu Kyi) during her trip,” Myint Cho, a Myanmar activist in Sydney, told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “I would like to comment that it is a good trip for our country and our people.”
“Malcolm Turnbull said he will help Myanmar as much as he can,” he said.
Muslim-majority Malaysia has slammed the Myanmar government for its handling of the crackdown on the Rohingya and called for an independent ASEAN-led investigation into reports of abuse by the Myanmar army.
A brutal series of killings, rape, torture, and arson by security forces forced nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee three townships in northern Rakhine state in what the United Nations has called a campaign of ethnic cleansing, if not genocide.
The Myanmar government has denied the charges and has asked for “clear evidence” of abuses by soldiers despite repeated reports by human rights groups documenting the atrocities and survivor and eyewitness accounts. Myanmar allows no unfettered access to the crisis zone even as it demands more evidence of atrocities.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak expressed strong disapproval of Aung San Suu Kyi’s handling of the Rohingya crisis during a speech he gave on counteterrorism at the summit on Saturday, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News online.
Razak said the suffering and displacement of the Rohingya, hundreds of thousands of whom are living in sprawling camps in neighboring Bangladesh, have made them vulnerable to extremist groups like the Islamic State.
“The situation in Rakhine state in Myanmar can no longer be considered a purely domestic matter," Razak told ASEAN leaders, according to ABC News, though ASEAN has an official policy of noninterference in the affairs of its member states.
Plugging national reconciliation
Aung San Suu Kyi also met with Myanmar nationals living in Sydney who donated $15,000 for the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development (UEHRD), an organization set up by the government to handle refugee resettlements and development plans for impoverished Rakhine state, Myint Cho said.
Aung San Suu Kyi discussed with them the ruling National League for Democracy’s (NLD) policy of national reconciliation to end decades of civil wars between Myanmar’s military and various ethnic armed groups.
Though Aung San Suu Kyi is leading a series of peace talks known as the 21st-Century Panglong Conference to bring warring parties to the negotiation table, the effort has stalled because of ongoing hostilities in far-flung border regions and because of the Rakhine crisis. The government is aiming to hold the next round of talks in May.
She told the Myanmar nationals that the process is taking longer than expected because national reconciliation must also be achieved among all organizations that have disagreements, and that the NLD will never implement decisions or policy by force, Myint Cho said.
Regional news reports said that demonstrators in Sydney, including some Rohingya, protested against Aung San Suu Kyi for human rights abuses and demanded that ASEAN members condemn the violence in Rakhine state.
But Myint Cho said he saw only one protest with four to five women dressed in burqas, who were also demonstrating against Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, both of whom have been accused of rights abuses in their respective countries.
Activist lawyers in Melbourne called for a lawsuit against the Myanmar leader on behalf of Australia's Rohingya community, accusing her of crimes against humanity, though Australia’s attorney general declined to allow it to proceed citing Aung San Suu Kyi’s diplomatic immunity.
Military attaches in Maungdaw
Meanwhile, in northern Rakhine state, more than 10 foreign military attaches visited Rohingya villages in Maungdaw township, one of three areas that were the focal point of the crackdown that began late last August.
The military attaches arrived in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe on Monday morning and toured two repatriation centers at Taungpyo Letwe and Nga Khu Ya and a transit camp at Hla Pho Khaung to handle returning Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh once a repatriation program gets under way.
The attaches from the United States, United Kingdom, South Korea, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, India, Thailand and China met with community leaders and Hindu and Muslim leaders in Maungdaw.
They also met with local Hindu women who had been abducted by Muslim insurgents responsible for killing about 100 other Hindus during the crackdown, Hindu leader Ni Maw said.
When the attaches asked the Hindu women if they wanted to live in their former places of residence alongside Muslims, they said it was no longer possible because they did not trust the Muslims.
“When the foreign military attaches asked the Hindu women what they wanted to say, the women said they wanted to know why the world is talking only about Muslims,” Ni Maw told RFA. “Hindus also were killed by Muslims. They want to know why people don’t talk about this, but only about the Muslims that have been killed.”
Last week, Myanmar informed Bangladesh that it will take back fewer than 400 Rohingya refugees out of the more than 8,000 who want to return voluntarily to northern Rakhine state — the only group it deemed eligible for the first round of repatriations.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.