With Myanmar drawing condemnation for violence that has driven nearly 380,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee the country, the government said its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, will skip this month’s UN General Assembly meetings. Suu Kyi will miss the assembly’s ministerial session, which opens Sept. 19 and runs through Sept. 25, to address domestic security issues, according to presidential office spokesman Zaw Htay.
The UN Security Council on Wednesday condemned the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that sparked the mass exodus. Members called for “immediate steps to end the violence” and efforts to de-escalate the situation, ensure protection of civilians and resolve the refugee problem.
Britain’s UN Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said the council’s press statement, which followed closed-door consultations, was the first statement the UN’s most powerful body has made in nine years on the situation in Myanmar. He called it “an important first step.”
While the Security Council was meeting, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters that ethnic cleansing was taking place against the Rohingya. He urged Myanmar’s government to suspend military action, end the violence, uphold the rule of law and allow the Rohingyas, who were stripped of citizenship years ago, to return home.
Suu Kyi’s appearance at last year’s General Assembly was a landmark: her first since her party won elections in 2015 and replaced a military-dominated government. Even then, however, she faced criticism over Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims, whose name she did not utter. Many in Buddhist-majority Myanmar instead use the term “Bengalis” and insist they are people who migrated illegally from Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi is not Myanmar’s president _ her official titles are state counselor and foreign minister _ but she effectively serves as leader of the Southeast Asian nation though she does not control the military.
Zaw Htay said that, with President Htin Kyaw hospitalized, second Vice President Henry Van Tio would attend the UN meeting. “The first reason (Suu Kyi cannot attend) is because of the Rakhine terrorist attacks,” Zaw Htay said. “The state counselor is focusing to calm the situation in Rakhine state. There are circumstances. The second reason is, there are people inciting riots in some areas. We are trying to take care of the security issue in many other places. The third is that we are hearing that there will be terrorist attacks and we are trying to address this issue.”
Instead, Zaw Htay said, Suu Kyi will give a speech in Myanmar next week that will cover the same topics that she would have addressed at the United Nations. The crisis erupted on Aug. 25, when an insurgent Rohingya group attacked police outposts in Rakhine and Myanmar’s military responded with “clearance operations” against the rebels. The ensuing violence has left hundreds dead and set off the refugee exodus, with new arrivals crossing the border into Bangladesh each day.
Zaw Htay said of 471 “Bengali” villages in three townships, 176 are now completely empty and at least 34 others are partially abandoned. He said at least 86 clashes occurred through Sept. 5, but none since. “What that means is, when the security forces are trying to stabilize the region, they have succeeded to a point,” he said.
The government blames Rohingya for the violence, but journalists who visited the region found evidence that raises doubts about its claims that Rohingya set fire to their own homes. Many of the Rohingya who flooded into refugee camps in Bangladesh told of Myanmar soldiers shooting indiscriminately, burning their homes and warning them to leave or die. Others said they were attacked by Buddhist mobs.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who lived under house arrest for many years under a military junta that ultimately gave way to an elected government, has faced a torrent of criticism since the crisis erupted. At a march in India’s capital on Wednesday, protesters asked whether Suu Kyi had received her Nobel for promoting peace or for persecuting Rohingya.
Bangladesh has been overwhelmed with the massive influx of Rohingya, many of whom arrived hungry and traumatized after walking for days through jungles or being packed into rickety wooden boats.
Thousands lined up on Wednesday outside a makeshift relief center in Cox’s Bazar district that was distributing rice, sugar and other relief materials. Mamunur Rashid of the International Organization for Migration said the supplies would be enough to help about 5,000 people.
The head of the UN High Commission for Refugees said humanitarian assistance to the fleeing Rohingya will increase “very, very quickly.” Asked why the response has been so slow, Filippo Grandi alluded to difficulties working in Bangladesh, but said he hoped this will change as the scale of the crisis becomes more apparent.
It is the government’s “responsibility to ensure that security returns to Rakhine,” Grandi told The Associated Press in Sweden at the opening of the Stockholm Security Conference. Bangladesh already was housing some 500,000 Rohingya who fled earlier flashes of violence including anti-Muslim riots in 2012. Many newcomers were staying in schools or were huddling under tarps in makeshift settlements along roads and in open fields. Basic resources were scarce, including food, clean water and medical aid.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has pledged to help the new arrivals, but demanded that Myanmar “take their nationals back.”