Naypyidaw: Aung San Suu Kyi said on Tuesday she does not fear global scrutiny over the Rohingya crisis, pledging to hold rights violators to account but refusing to blame the military for violence that has driven some 421,000 of the Muslim minority out of her country.
In an address timed to pre-empt likely censure of Myanmar 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 unfurling crisis in her “fragile democracy”.
She vowed to resettle some refugees but offered no solutions to stop what the UN calls army-led “ethnic cleansing” in Rakhine state, where soldiers are accused of burning Muslim Rohingya from their homes.
Rights group Amnesty International said the Nobel peace laureate 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 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.
“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 Muslim Rohingya fleeing mainly Buddhist Myanmar 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 the subject of their claims to live in Myanmar is at the heart of a toxic debate about the Muslim group, who are denied citizenship by the state and considered to be illegal immigrants.
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 suggests those 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”.
Myanmar’s army acts without civilian oversight and makes all security decisions, including its notorious scorched earth counter-insurgency operations.
Suu Kyi insisted Rakhine was not a state in flames.
“More than 50 percent of the villages of Muslims are intact,” she said.
Around 170 Rohingya villages have been razed, the government admits. Rights groups say satellite evidence shows the damage is more widespread.
With Rakhine in lockdown, and the government refusing to issue visas for UN investigators, independent verification is impossible.
Following her speech, the UN repeated calls for “full and unfettered” access. “It is important for us to see with our own eyes the sites of these alleged violations”, said fact-finding mission head Marzuki Darusman.
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 (ARSA).
Many in Myanmar reject the notion of a Rohingya ethnicity and insist they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Loathing for the group has brought the public, including pro-democracy activists, into an unlikely alignment with an army that once had them under its heel.
A siege mentality has emerged in Myanmar with the UN, international NGOs and foreign media the focus of anger for apparent bias.
Many Facebook users changed their profile picture on Tuesday to carry a photo of ‘The Lady’ and a message reading “We stand with you Daw Aung San Suu Kyi”.
Her 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.