Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi will not attend the United Nations General Assembly this week, her spokesman said on Wednesday, as the Nobel laureate faces a barrage of criticism over her failure to speak up for Rohingya Muslims fleeing Rakhine state in huge numbers. A crackdown by Myanmar’s army, launched in response to Rohingya militant attacks on August 25, has sent some 379,000 Rohingya refugees scrambling across the border to Bangladesh in less than three weeks.
The violence has incubated a humanitarian crisis on both sides of the border and piled intense global pressure on Suu Kyi to condemn the army campaign, which the UN has described as having all the hallmarks of “ethnic cleansing”.
Bangladesh is struggling to provide relief for exhausted and hungry refugees — some 60 percent of whom are children –while nearly 30,000 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists as well as Hindus have been displaced inside Myanmar.
Nine thousand more refugees poured into Bangladesh on Wednesday, as authorities clambered to build a new camp for tens of thousands of arrivals who have no shelter.
Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s first civilian leader in decades, has no control over the powerful military, which ran the country for 50 years before allowing free elections in 2015.
There is also scant sympathy among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority for the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim group branded “Bengalis” — shorthand for illegal immigrants.
But outside of her country Suu Kyi’s reputation as a defender of the oppressed is in ruins over the Rohingya crisis.
Rights groups have pilloried the former democracy activist for failing to speak out against the army campaign, which has left hundreds dead.
Rohingya refugees have told chilling accounts of soldiers firing on civilians and razing entire villages in northern Rakhine state with the help of Buddhist mobs.
The army denies the allegations, while Suu Kyi has also played down claims of atrocities, instead blaming “a huge iceberg of misinformation” for complicating the conflict.
Her decision to skip the UN assembly comes hours before the Security Council is set to discuss the refugee crisis behind closed doors, with China expected to shoot down any efforts to censure its strategically pivotal Southeast Asian ally.
“The state counsellor won’t attend the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly,” government spokesman Zaw Htay told AFP, using Suu Kyi’s formal title.
He did not explain the decision but said Vice President Henry Van Thio would attend the summit, which runs through next week.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner garlanded for her dignified and defiant democracy activism under Myanmar’s former junta, was once the darling of the international community.
She made her debut before the UN assembly last September, winning warm applause for a speech delivered months after she became Myanmar’s first civilian leader following a decades-long democracy struggle under the former junta.