With a mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims sparking accusations of ethnic cleansing from the United Nations and others, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi Tuesday said her country does not fear international scrutiny and invited diplomats to see some areas for themselves.
Though an estimated 421,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in less than a month as their villages burned and hundreds were killed, Suu Kyi said the “great majority”’ of Muslims within the conflict zone stayed and that “more than 50 per cent of their villages were intact”.
The Nobel Peace laureate’s global image has been damaged by violence since Rohingya insurgents attacked Myanmar security forces on August 25. The Rohingya fled their villages in the military crackdown that followed, and many of their villages have been burned. The government has blamed the Rohingya themselves, but members of the persecuted minority have said soldiers and Buddhist mobs attacked them.
Suu Kyi’s first address to the nation since the violence erupted came days after she cancelled plans to attend the UN General Assembly, a decision widely seen as a response to international criticism.
Suu Kyi said anyone found to have broken the law would be punished. “Human rights violations and all other acts that impair stability and harmony and undermine the rule of law will be addressed in accordance with strict laws and justice,’’ she said.
Suu Kyi sought to assure foreign diplomats gathered for her speech in Naypyitaw, the capital, that those who fled to Bangladesh would be allowed to return if they passed a “verification’’ process. She also said the government was working to restore normalcy in the area.
Though fires have continued to flare in recent days in the Rakhine state, she said “there have been no armed clashes and there have been no clearance operations’’ for the past two weeks.
“Nevertheless we are concerned to hear that numbers of Muslims are fleeing across the border to Bangladesh,’’ she said. “We want to understand why this exodus is happening. We would like to talk to those who have fled as well as those who have stayed.’’
She said she it would be helpful to understand why conflict did not break out everywhere. She invited the diplomats to visit villages that weren’t affected so they could learn along with the government “why are they not at each other’s throats in these particular areas’’.
The Rohingya, who live mainly in Rakhine state near the Bangladesh border, have had a long and troubled history in this predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million.
Though members of the long-persecuted religious minority first arrived in the western state of Rakhine generations ago, most people in Myanmar consider them to have migrated illegally from Bangladesh. Denied citizenship, they are effectively stateless. They cannot travel freely, practise their religion, or work as teachers or doctors, and they have little access to medical care, food or education.
The attacks on Rohingya villages in the last month appear to many to have been a systematic effort to drive them out. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has described it as ethnic cleansing.
Satellite imagery released by Human Rights Watch Tuesday shows massive swathes of scorched landscape and the near total destruction of 214 villages. Also Tuesday, a group that focuses on Rohingya rights said the attacks drove nearly all Rohingya out of one of the three northern Rakhine townships where the ethnic group is concentrated in Myanmar.
The Arakan Project found that almost every tract of villages in Maungdaw township suffered some burning. Most Rohingya villages in Rathedaung township also were targeted, but relatively few were hit in Buthidaung township.