Myanmar's leader speaks out, but doesn't address claims of ethnic cleansing

Aung San Suu Kyi must walk a delicate line between the nation's powerful Army and global pressure to address human rights violations against the Rohingya within Myanmar.

Aung Shine Oo/AP
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi gives a televised speech responding to international claims of human rights violations within Myanmar. Domestic audiences were pleased with her address but human rights activists said it wasn't enough to condemn military actions against Rohingya.

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi condemned on Tuesday human rights violations in Rakhine state and said violators would be brought to book, but she did not address United Nations accusations of a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the military.

The Nobel Peace laureate's remarks came in her first address to the nation since attacks by Rohingya Muslim insurgents on Aug. 25 sparked a military response that has forced 421,000 Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh.

Western diplomats and aid officials, hoping for an unequivocal condemnation of violence and hate speech, welcomed the tone of Ms. Suu Kyi's message, but some doubted if she had done enough to deflect global criticism.

Human rights group Amnesty International described her speech as "little more than a mix of untruths and victim-blaming," saying she and her government were "burying their heads in the sand" for ignoring the Army's role in the violence.

"We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence. We are committed to the restoration of peace and stability and rule of law throughout the state," Suu Kyi said in her address in the capital, Naypyitaw.

"Action will be taken against all people, regardless of their religion, race, and political position, who go against the law of the land and violate human rights," she said.

Long feted in the West as a champion of democracy in the Buddhist-majority country during years of military rule and house arrest, Suu Kyi has faced growing criticism for saying little about abuses faced by the Rohingya.

The United States urged Myanmar on Monday to end military operations, grant humanitarian access, and commit to aiding the safe return of civilians to their homes.

Myanmar's generals remain in full charge of security and Suu Kyi did not comment on the military or its operation, except to say there had been "no armed clashes and there have been no clearance operations" since Sept. 5.

Rohingya refugees arriving in Bangladesh have told of soldiers and Buddhist civilians attacking and burning villages as recently as last Friday. It was not possible to verify their accounts.

Rights monitors and fleeing Rohingya say the Army and Rakhine Buddhist vigilantes have mounted a campaign of arson aimed at driving out the Muslim population.

The UN rights agency described it as "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

Myanmar rejects that, saying its forces are tackling insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which has claimed responsibility for attacks since October. The government has declared it a terrorist group and accused it of setting the fires and attacking civilians.

Western governments that backed Suu Kyi's campaign against military rule still see her as the best hope for Myanmar's political and economic transition.

But she has to avoid angering the powerful Army.

She also has to avoid alienating her supporters by being seen to take the side of a Muslim minority that enjoys little sympathy, and has been blamed for initiating violence in a country that has seen a surge of Buddhist nationalism.

Some diplomats said her speech did not squarely address the problem. But her domestic audience was happy.

Thousands of supporters gathered in the main city of Yangon and other towns to watch her speech on big screens. Social media saw a blizzard of posts with the message: "We stand with Aung San Suu Kyi."

The military spokesman was not available for comment. One official familiar with the military's thinking said it would have no objection to her speech.

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said satellite images showed about half of all Rohingya villages had been torched and it was time that Suu Kyi, the government, and the military faced the fact that the security forces "don't follow a code of conduct and shoot and kill who they want" and burn villages.

Amnesty International said there was "overwhelming evidence" the security forces were engaged in ethnic cleansing.

"While it was positive to hear Aung San Suu Kyi condemn human rights violations in Rakhine state, she is still silent about the role of the security forces," the group said.

The ambassador of China, which vies with the US for influence in Myanmar, said Suu Kyi's speech would improve understanding. Russia's ambassador said there was no evidence of ethnic cleansing.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Murphy also attended the event.

Suu Kyi said her government had been promoting harmony between the Muslim and largely Buddhist ethnic Rakhine communities.

But a government official there did not share her optimism.

"They have no trust for each other," the state's secretary, Tin Maung Swe, told Reuters, adding tension was high.

"The situation is ready to explode."

Suu Kyi said she was committed to recommendations made by an advisory team led by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, which last month suggested a review of a law that links citizenship and ethnicity and leaves most Rohingya stateless.

On the return of refugees, Suu Kyi said Myanmar was ready to start a verification process and "refugees from this country will be accepted without any problem."

She referred to a 1993 agreement with Bangladesh, but few refugees have returned under what aid workers said was a lengthy, complex process.

This story was reported by Reuters.

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