AUNG San Suu Kyi used her first interview with the BBC in years to deny the existence of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.
Having led the pro-democracy and human rights movement against a military dictatorship in Burma (Myanmar), Suu Kyi has attracted widespread criticism for her failure to condemn persecution of the Rohingya minority.
Speaking to the BBC’s special correspondent Fergal Keane on Wednesday, Suu Kyi said, “I’m just a politician. I’m not quite like Margaret Thatcher… but on the other hand, I’m no Mother Teresa either.”
Burma’s military has been accused of human rights abuses against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine State, including mass killings and gang rapes, as it fights a group of Muslim insurgents.
“I think there’s a lot of hostility there,” said Suu Kyi on Wednesday, adding that “It’s Muslims killing Muslims as well if they think that they are collaborating with the authorities.”
The United Nations has claimed more than 1,000 Rohingya have been killed in security forces’ operations in Rakhine, and at least 70,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh since late 2016.
When asked by the BBC if she feared being remembered as a Nobel laureate who failed to stand up to ethnic cleansing in her own country, Suu Kyi asserted, “No because I don’t think there’s ethnic cleansing going on.”
“I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening,” she said.
UN special rapporteur Yanghee Lee has previously accused Burma of trying to “expel” the Rohingya from the country altogether via bureaucratic means, which would amount to ethnic cleansing.
Burma’s Religious Affairs and Culture Ministry recently announced it was working on a treatise at proving the Rohingya community are not indigenous to the country.
Lee has also highlighted egregious human rights abuses including throwing children into fires and the rape of Muslim women.
But Suu Kyi said “It’s not just a matter of ethnic cleansing as you put it. It’s a matter of people on different sides of a divide.”
Asked by Keane why “as an icon of human rights” she hadn’t spoken out against persecution and killings of Rohingya, Suu Kyi said, “This question has been asked since 2013 when the last round of troubles broke out in the Rakhine.”
“People would say I said nothing simply because I didn’t make the kind of statement which they thought I should make, which is to condemn one community or the other,” she said.
Southeast Asia researcher at the Lowy Institute Aaron Connelly noted that it was Suu Kyi’s first interview with the BBC in several years, having boycotted the news outlet since the 2015 elections.
It was not however with the network’s regular Burma correspondent, Jonah Fisher, who has been critical of Suu Kyi and the government.
Despite its transition to democracy, media in the military dictatorship remains closely monitored and controlled. A foreign journalist was fired last year from the Myanmar Times for covering allegations of rape against the military.
A group of local and foreign journalists were reportedly allowed to enter Rakhine State recently, with the government claiming journalists were “impressed with extensive media access.”