Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi finally broke her silence on the Rohingya refugee crisis Tuesday, insisting that her country was not “afraid of international scrutiny.”
But her speech in the nation’s capital of Nyapyidaw drew widespread criticism: Suu Kyi did not denounce alleged atrocities against the Rohingya community and claimed the government needed more time investigate the exodus from Myanmar of more than 400,000 members of the minority Muslim group.
Amnesty International described the speech — in which Suu Kyi only once referred to the Rohingya by name — as a “mix of untruths and victim blaming.”
The much-anticipated speech was Suu Kyi’s first since a crackdown by the Myanmar military in Rakhine state, which the United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has called a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”
In her 30-minute televised address, Suu Kyi, whose official title is State Counselor, said the Myanmar government needed time to find out “what the real problems are” in Rakhine state, despite the fact that the UN, numerous rights groups and the Myanmar government itself have issued reports detailing the causes behind the inter-ethnic bloodshed.
Her sole reference to the Rohingya by name was a reference to the burgeoning Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group, which she claimed was “responsible for acts of terrorism.”
Suu Kyi delivered the address in English, widely taken to mean that it was directed more at an international audience than her own people. She canceled a planned appearance at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week, as the Rohingya crisis has deepened.
Suu Kyi’s ambivalent position on the Rohingya has disappointed many outside Myanmar, who view her as a champion of human rights during her battle against military rule.
But it was met with applause and cheers from large crowds in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, who had gathered to watch live on large outdoor screens amid a party atmosphere.
Amnesty International accused Suu Kyi and her government of “burying their heads in the sand over the horrors unfolding in Rakhine State.”
“At times, her speech amounted to little more than a mix of untruths and victim blaming,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
Suu Kyi began the address by underscoring the delicate nature of Burmese democracy and how little time her own party had been in power.
“After half a century or more of authoritarian rule, now we are in the process of nurturing our nation,” she said, adding that recent violence is just one of many complexities faced by Myanmar.
“We are a young and fragile country facing many problems, but we have to cope with them all,” she said. “We cannot just concentrate on the few.”
Much of the speech appeared intended to frame the crisis as a complex internal issue and contrasted the violence — which she depicted as isolated — with the government’s ongoing development agenda, specifically its efforts to deliver “peace, stability, harmony, and progress” to the nation as a whole.
Myanmar considers the Rohingya illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, despite the fact that many Rohingya families have lived in Rakhine State for decades. Bangladesh considers them Burmese.
The Myanmar government does not use the term “Rohingya” and does not recognize the people as an official ethnicity, which means the Rohingya are denied citizenship and effectively rendered stateless.
In her speech, Suu Kyi claimed that “all people living in Rakhine state have access to education and health care services without discrimination. But CNN correspondent Ivan Watson, who has traveled to Rakhine state and visited Rohingya settlements, said the claim was “categorically untrue.”
Watson, who covered the speech at Nyapyidaw, tried to question Suu Kyi about the allegations of ethnic cleansing as she left the auditorium, but was ignored by the State Counselor.
Analysts said Suu Kyi had made a political calculation that speaking out more strongly on the Rohingya would have cost her support within the country.
“She’s no longer a peace campaigner, she’s evolved and transitioned into a full-time politician,” said Azeem Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.”
Penny Green, a professor of law at Queen Mary University of London who studies the Rohingya conflict, called out Suu Kyi’s connection of the Rohingya to the ARSA militant group as behavior common among those targeting an ethnic group.
“She (Suu Kyi) chooses to use the word in relation to a terrorist group, that means that is the only identity that Rohingya will be attached to, from her perspective and she hopes from the international perspective,” Green said.
Green said Suu Kyi’s speech was “disingenuous” and “filled with underlying denials” that she said was “typical of the way in which state criminals behave.”
She said Suu Kyi’s indication that the Rohingya crisis was deescalating was particularly “absurd”.
Suu Kyi twice claimed that September 5 was the date of the last reported armed conflict, while simultaneously underscoring that more than “60% of the Muslim villages” remained intact.
Refugee testimonies, however, appear to contradict this, with many claiming that clearance operations are ongoing. The spike in refugee numbers between September 5 and 18 also suggest the conflict is far from over.
Suu Kyi claimed government efforts to resolve the conflict have been complicated by what she termed “allegations and counter-allegations.”
“We have to listen to all of them. We have to make sure those allegations are based on solid evidence before we take action,” she said. “We want to find out why this exodus is happening. We’d like to talk to those who have fled, as well as those who have stayed.”
Party atmosphere in Yangon
Outside Yangon’s city hall, many reiterated their belief that Suu Kyi had been portrayed unfairly in international media and that she was standing up for her country.
“We don’t know what is the real situation over there,” said 23-year-old student Min Thu Kyaw.
She told CNN the issue in Rakhine State is more complicated than it seems. “I think international media needs to study more about Rakhine State.”
Many others in crowd of waved national flags and carried posters of Suu Kyi.
Melissa Crouch, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales specializing in Asian legal studies, says Suu Kyi’s popularity among domestic audiences is reflective of broader trends.
“The international community solidified her status as a moral hero, her status as sort of an icon. I think people felt (in Myanamr) the international community were unfairly targeting her,” she said.
‘They were killing us’
The Myanmar government has said its operations in Rakhine State are in response to the August attack and that the military is battling terrorists, doing everything it can to protect civilians, which Suu Kyi reiterated in her speech.
Others accuse the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, of responding with a scorched-earth policy.
Stories from those who made it to neighboring Bangladesh, however, paint a different picture, one of the military and allied mobs attacking the Rohingya indiscriminately.
“The Rakhines and the Hindus, they joined with the military. I watched them coming over the hill, like a team,” 50-year-old Khatun told CNN from Cox’s Bazar, one of the biggest refugee camps in Bangladesh. “I knew them, yet they were killing us.”
Inside the Kutupalong refugee camp, refugees told CNN they believe Suu Kyi has failed them.
“What Aung San Suu Kyi is doing is not good,” 45-year-old village elder Baser told CNN. “She is responsible for this violence.”
Suu Kyi’s political party swept to victory in the country’s democratic elections in 2015 and the role of State Counselor was created for her, as she is constitutionally barred from serving as president.
The military still wields a significant amount of power, and it’s unclear how much control Suu Kyi has over how Burmese forces handle the situation in Rakhine State compared to Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the military’s commander-in-chief.
“Under the Constitution the Commander-in-Chief is his own boss, he doesn’t report to Aung San Suu Ky. He can’t be fired,” Aaron Connelly, a research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, told CNN.
“If the military has to choose between control and international respect, they will choose control.”