Myanmar’s leader has finally broken her silence only to defend how her government is dealing with the massive human rights violations committed against Rakhine-based Rohingya Muslims, which the UN says amount to ethnic cleansing. Aung San Suu Kyi fell short of singling out the military in the globally-condemned violence, which has triggered a massive exodus of Muslim refugees to Bangladesh.
On Tuesday, Suu Kyi addressed the nation for the first time since August 25, when a fresh upsurge in violence subjected the Rohingya in Muslim villages across the western state of Rakhine to mass killings, torture, rape and arson attacks and forced more than 417,000 to flee their homeland.
Suu Kyi has faced harsh international criticism amid several reports about systematic attacks by the Myanmar military and majority Buddhists against the persecuted Muslim community.
In her address, however, Suu Kyi claimed that most Muslim villages had not been affected by the violence, wondering about the reasons why the exodus to Bangladesh still continued, despite the fact that there had been no “clearance operations” since September 5.
She said her government intended to find out why people in almost 50 percent of Muslim villages that remained unaffected had preferred to stay, acknowledging in the process that half of Rohingya villages had been destroyed and burned to the ground in the ongoing bout of violence.
There have been “allegations and counter-allegations” that need to be investigated before taking any action, Suu Kyi said.
The leader of the Asian country’s civilian government said Myanmar does not fear international scrutiny and is committed to finding a sustainable solution to the situation in Rakhine. Suu Kyi’s silence has provoked immense international criticism in recent weeks, especially after dismissing reports of ethnic violence in Rakhine as “a huge iceberg of misinformation” meant to “promote the interests of the terrorists.”
In her speech, Suu Kyi even refused to use the word Rohingya to refer to members of the minority group, naming them only once while making mention of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a group that purportedly fights to defend the rights of the minority group. She claimed that peaceful conditions were disturbed only after armed groups had staged terrorist attacks on dozens of police outposts in August.
She claimed that Myanmar was ready to verify the national status of the Rohingya refugees who have fled violence in recent weeks. “We are prepared to start the verification process at any time," she suggested.
But the brutality against the Rohingyas has its roots in the very fact that Myanmar does not recognize them as citizens and has denied citizenship rights to 1.1 million members of the community for several decades, alleging they are Bengalis who have in the past migrated to the country from Bangladesh. The Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship in 1982 despite having lived in the country for generations.
Due to their status, the Rohingya are not free to travel and practice their religion, having little access to medical care, food or education.
The de facto leader further said she felt deeply for the suffering of “all the people caught up in the conflict.”
“We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence. We are committed to the restoration of peace and stability and rule of law throughout the state,” she added, without putting forth any concrete solutions to stop ethnic killings.
Amnesty: Suu Kyi ‘burying head in sand’
Following the 30-minute rant, Amnesty International, which has been sharply criticizing Myanmar’s recent conduct in Rakhine, was quick to respond, saying the Nobel laureate and her government are only “burying their heads in the sand” in the face of the violence.
“Refugees who have fled to Bangladesh cannot return to this appalling status quo,” the rights group said, adding “at times her speech amounted to little more than a mix of untruths and victim blaming.”
The government claims its attacks in Rakhine are a response to armed “terrorists,” but reports and evidence presented by witnesses and international organizations tell a different story.
The latest evidence published by Amnesty International points to “a mass-scale scorched-earth campaign” across Rakhine State, where Myanmar’s forces and vigilante mobs “are burning down entire Rohingya villages and shooting people at random as they try to flee. In legal terms, these are crimes against humanity – systematic attacks and forcible deportation of civilians.”
The rights group further highlighted the “horrific situation” in Myanmar, criticizing the international community’s failure to address the plight of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
The UN said last week that Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar are facing a risk of ethnic cleansing at the hands of military forces.
Human Rights Watch called for harsh sanctions and an arms embargo against the Myanmar military over its ethnic cleansing campaign against Muslims.
The government forces in Myanmar do not even spare the fleeing Rohingya refugees. Recent reports by Amnesty and Bangladeshi officials say the military plants landmines on the path of those trying to cross into Bangladesh, causing them to sustain serious wounds or lose their limbs.
Muslims being wiped off Myanmar’s map
On Monday, a humanitarian group reported that Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim community is literally “being wiped off the map” amid the ongoing crackdown.
“For generations, Rohingya Muslims have called Myanmar home. Now, in what appears to be a systematic purge, they are, quite literally, being wiped off the map,” said Chris Lewa, director of Arakan Project, AP reported.
In Bangladesh, where officials say the size and speed of the exodus is overwhelming, the new refugees are joining tens of thousands of previous refugees, hoarding into sprawling refugee camps, where there are shortages of all sorts.
“This is the worst crisis in Rohingya history,” said Lewa.
“Security forces have been burning villages one by one, in a very systematic way," she said, adding, “And it’s still ongoing.”
Meanwhile, international opinion has hardened against Myanmar as the US, Britain, Australia and France renewed calls for Suu Kyi to push for an end to violence against Rohingya Muslims.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in a related development, said she spoke to US President Donald Trump on Monday about Rohingya refugees flooding into her country. However, she said expected no help from the US president.