AFTER weeks of silence, the de facto leader of Burma (Myanmar) Aung San Suu Kyi has addressed the issue of the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State in which more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled as refugees into Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi delivered what she called a “diplomatic briefing” on Tuesday morning in the capital city of Naypyidaw, as the international community puts pressure on the Nobel laureate to prevent further attacks on the Rohingya.
The State Counsellor’s speech emphasised that there had been “allegations and counter-allegations” of strife in Rakhine, and explained her long silence on the issue by stating it was not her mission to “promote conflict” but rather “harmony and understanding.”
Violence has gripped the northern state since militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched attacks on some 30 outposts of police and military. Burmese security forces have been accused of disproportionate response including arson, extrajudicial killings and rape.
According to the International Organisation for Migration, more than 400,000 people have fled Burma into Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh in recent weeks.
“Those who have had to flee their homes are many, not just Muslims and Rakhines,” said Suu Kyi, pointing to Hindus and other ethnic minorities allegedly forced to flee clashes, “of which most of the world is totally unaware.”
As the UN General Assembly meets in New York this week, the Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Suu Kyi’s speech was the “last chance” for Suu Kyi to “reverse the situation” and “make sure the carnage stops.”
Burma’s government supports the United Nations’ goal of creating a “more compassionate home for all mankind,” Suu Kyi said on Monday.
Invitation to friends
In front of 14 Burmese flags and a banner which declared the address was “with regard to National Reconciliation and Peace”, Suu Kyi said her speech was not just a diplomatic briefing but rather also a “friendly appeal to all those who wish Myanmar well.”
Suu Kyi repeatedly invited Burma’s “friends” in the international community to visit areas of the Rakhine where Muslim communities have remained intact in “peace and stability”, to ask them why they have not left, and to “see our point of view as well.”
“Myanmar does not fear international scrutiny,” she said, adding that the country was committed to the rule of law and that all parties guilty of human rights violations would be “addressed in accordance with strict norms of justice.”
“It is not the intention of the Myanmar government to apportion blame or abdicate responsibility.”
Burma has, however, denied access to a UN fact-finding mission as well as international aid organisations to operate in affected areas of Rakhine State.
A growing list of prominent international figures has urged Suu Kyi to act in defence of the Rohingya including the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, and a number of Nobel laureates including Malala Yousafzai and Desmond Tutu.
Suu Kyi said that she knew the world’s eyes were on Burma, but that it was a “complex nation” and that its “complexities are compounded by the fact that people expect us to overcome all these challenges” in a short period of time – referring to the NLD’s term of government which she noted was less than 18 months.
Democracy, peace and development
The Burmese leader claimed that the country would implement the recommendations of the independent inquiry led by Kofi Annan, prioritising those that would bring a “speedy improvement to the situation” in Rakhine.
“We are concerned to hear that numbers of Muslims are fleeing across the border to Bangladesh,” said Suu Kyi, who said that 50 percent of Rohingya – a term she did not use – villages were still intact. She said that “those verified as refugees from Myanmar” were welcome to return “any time.”
The million-strong Rohingya population are, however, not citizens of Burma, meaning it is unclear how a process of “repatriation” would work.
Curiously, Suu Kyi claimed that despite “hordes of refugees” fleeing there had been “no armed clashes” since Sep 5.
This contradicts the claims of international aid organisations, rights groups and journalists on the ground in Burma. Human Rights Watch said on Monday that images taken over the weekend show at least 214 villages burned across the Rakhine since Aug 25 – many of these since Sep 5.
Throughout Suu Kyi’s speech, she also emphasised the NLD government’s role in implementing programmes for economic growth – particularly in the Rakhine – as well as supporting democratic transition and “peace and stability.”
The leader claimed that all people in Rakhine State had access to education and healthcare services without discrimination, and had upgraded 300 schools there.
“Muslim students also have access to higher education without discrimination.” – Suu Kyi
Investment in healthcare had meant that within a year, HIV/AIDS deaths in Burma had been halved, she said.
‘Compassionate home for all mankind’
Suu Kyi said that during her address to the General Assembly last year, she had “reaffirmed our faith and confidence” in the UN Charter and Burma’s belief in making “a kinder, more compassionate home for all mankind.”
“Hate and fear are the main scourges of the world … we have to remove the negative and increase the positive,” said the State Counsellor. “We place great importance on the United Nations … created to promote peace and harmony.”
Foreign diplomats and representatives of the UN were formally invited to meet with Suu Kyi after her address.