BURMA’S State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s much-anticipated address to the nation on Tuesday has been met with a cool response from the international community, with human rights groups and foreign diplomats accusing the de facto leader of “untruths and victim blaming”.
Taking to the stage in the capital Naypyidaw, Suu Kyi delivered her long-awaited response to the ongoing atrocities in Rakhine State, a situation that has been described by the United Nations as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya Muslim population.
The speech emphasised that there had been “allegations and counter-allegations” of strife in Rakhine, and she explained her long silence on the issue by stating it was not her mission to “promote conflict” but rather “harmony and understanding.”
While she did “condemn all human rights violations”, the speech struck a hollow note on the international stage and fell far short of condemning the widely-reported violence against the Rohingya community, a move that so many in the international community have long wanted to hear.
In a statement following the speech, Amnesty International’s regional director for Southeast Asia, James Gomez, accused Suu Kyi and her government of “burying their heads in the sand over the horrors unfolding in Rakhine State,” claiming her speech was “little more than a mix of untruths and victim blaming.”
Netherlands Ambassador to Burma Wouter Jurgens expressed his disappointment saying, “we feared denial and hoped for a message of compassion and justice: neither has come true.”
— Wouter Jurgens (@WouterJurgens) September 19, 2017
So, for a speech that was supposed to placate an international audience perplexed by the Nobel laureate’s silence, why has it been met with such mounting criticism?
Failure to address accusations of ethnic cleansing
As so many in the international community had hoped it would, Suu Kyi’s address failed to directly acknowledge and condemn the violence being perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslim population.
“She says she condemns all human rights violations and unlawful violence but that’s not an acknowledgement that human rights violations happening in Rakhine State,” Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights, said in a statement on Tuesday.
“Once again, she effectively denied what’s happening, snuffing out hope that she might become part of the solution.”
‘No clearance operations’ since Sept 5
Government efforts to “restore the situation to normalcy” are succeeding, Suu Kyi said. “Since the fifth of September, there have been no armed clashes and there have been no clearance operations.”
Human rights groups and eye-witnesses escaping the violence paint a rather different story, saying the military’s response to the Aug 25 attacks have included helicopter attacks and the burning of Rohingya villages. Refugees have also told CNN non-Muslim groups were armed and encouraged to attack their Muslim neighbours.
Don’t believe denials about ongoing ethnic cleansing This photo shows 3 Rohingya Muslim villages set afire yesterday in course of 20 mins. pic.twitter.com/GYsdUVbkX0
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) September 19, 2017
— Francis Wade (@Francis_Wade) September 14, 2017
— Richard Weir (@rich_weir) September 19, 2017
Satellite imagery from Human Rights Watch (HRW) shows that at least 214 Rohingya Muslim villages have been burnt down in Rakhine State in recent weeks. The rights group said on Monday the detailed imagery revealed “destruction from burning much greater than previously known.”
There have been a number of photos emerge that show villages being burned in the last few days, including photos from HRW’s Kenneth Roth.
The scale and nature of the devastation revealed in the images has been widely corroborated in interviews with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
Verification and repatriation
Suu Kyi confidently called for the repatriation of Rohingya from Bangladesh, where over 420,000 have fled since clashes began on Aug 25. She declared that Burma is “prepared to start the verification process at any time”.
Working from the criteria already agreed upon, Suu Kyi said “those who are verified as refugees from Myanmar” will be able to return home and have the full guarantee to security and humanitarian aid.
The repatriation of refugees was a measure much of the international community had hoped for. However, given the criteria to qualify for repatriation, it will come as little comfort to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled the violence.
The 1992 agreement struck between Burma and Bangladesh requires refugees to provide “evidence of their residence in Myanmar” or carry a Myanmar Citizenship Identity card, and only includes those registered by the Bangladeshi Government.
State Counsellor said all refugees can return based on 1993 ‘principles’; the 28.4.92 Bangladesh/Myanmar MOU included this on verification: pic.twitter.com/SGqJNL4oav
— Thant Myint-U (@thantmyintu) September 19, 2017
As Rohingya are not considered citizens in Burma and the majority lack proper documentation, for many, this will be almost impossible to prove.
According to Al Jazeera, Bangladesh has started a biometric registration process for Rohingya refugees. But the repatriation process will be based on “trust and confidence in what Bangladesh’s government says”.
Allowing access to Rakhine State
Suu Kyi encouraged diplomats and aid workers to come “see for yourself” the situation in Rakhine state.
“We invite you to join us, to talk to us, to discuss with us, to go with us to the problem areas, where we can guarantee security for you,” she said.
She also urged diplomats to visit Muslim communities in Rakhine that have not fled the clashes, in a bid to “learn more from the Muslims who have integrated successfully”.
The Burmese government has repeatedly denied access to the inflicted regions.
On Tuesday, UN human rights investigators said they needed “full and unfettered” access to Burma to investigate a grave and ongoing crisis, but the government renewed its rejection of the probe.
Hours after Suu Kyi’s address, Burma’s UN ambassador Htin Lynn re-asserted his government’s “position of disassociating herself from the resolution” that set up the fact-finding mission.
“We continue to believe that instituting such a mission is not a helpful course of action in solving the already-intricated Rakhine issue”, he told the council, as reported by AFP (via ChannelNewsAsia).
All people have access to education and healthcare
In direct contradiction to an official report commissioned by the government and compiled by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Suu Kyi claimed Rohingya have access to the same services as their non-Muslim neighbours.
The UN report, released in August, found that Muslims, in particular internally displaced persons, are “deprived of freedom of movement.”
“Movement restrictions have a wide range of detrimental effects, including reduced access to education, health and services, strengthened communal segregation, and reduced economic interaction,” the report said.
Despite this, Suu Kyi stated, “all people living in the Rakhine have access to education and healthcare services without discrimination”, adding that the government had upgraded 300 schools in the region.