After weeks of virtual silence, The Lady has finally spoken. In a speech, Aung San Suu Kyi did her best to assure the wider world that human rights violators would be punished and that her government was committed to the restoration of peace and stability across the deeply troubled state of Rakhine given the atrocity surrounding the Muslim Rohingya there.
She also asked the international community for help, offering to work with Bangladesh in repatriating refugees – but only if they could prove citizenship in Myanmar.
Speaking to diplomats and journalists in Naypyidaw, Suu Kyi also blamed a “huge iceberg of misinformation” for the atrocious perceptions of her government’s handling of the Rohingya crisis, which UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, says seems like a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”
The latest round of violence erupted in August when the so-called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police outposts and a military camp, killing about a dozen security officers. And, since then, al-Qaeda has called on Islamic militants to rise up in support of ARSA, even though the group had initially insisted that its goals remained primarily domestic in orientation.
But Suu Kyi stood silent as the authorities in Myanmar took a sledgehammer approach to a problem that required skill and sensitivity, thereby threatening the fate of a wider Muslim population – mostly ordinary people with no interest in imported firebrands from the Middle East.
About 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have since fled across the border into Bangladesh amid claims of murder, rape, torture and their homes razed – numbers which have only kept rising. An additional 30,000 people from different ethnic groups are believed to have been displaced.
The military’s reaction, and Suu Kyi’s silence, may well have provided the kick start Islamic militants — still seeking a caliphate in Southeast Asia – have been looking for.
Suu Kyi broke that silence and spoke for 30 minutes and insisted: “The security forces have been instructed to adhere strictly to the code of conduct, to exercise all due restraint and to take full measures to avoid the harming of innocent civilians.”
Some say that bodes well for an independent investigation into the atrocities, which does warrant the fullest attention of the appropriate international authorities. But proof of military-led atrocities will likely be just as difficult to obtain as proof of citizenship demanded from Rohingyas who choose to return.
Suu Kyi unsurprisingly declined to use the term Rohingya, a politically charged term in the country. Nor did she tackle the widespread loathing of Rohingyas in Myanmar, even though this is perhaps a case without parallel in Southeast Asia where enmity between cultures, religion and national identity is rife.
Still, Suu Kyi was applauded by Andrew Kirkwood, from the United Nations Office for Project Services, who described her speech as “a positive development,” in particular her offer to the international community to travel into Rakhine.
However, Amnesty International accused the Nobel laureate of “burying her head in the sand” adding “contrary to Aung San Suu Kyi’s claims, Rohingya are essentially segregated in Rakhine State, effectively denied citizenship and face severe barriers.”
Refugees fleeing into Myanmar were furious with her speech, branding her a “traitor” while noting the death and destruction they faced, while they had been bullied out of politics by Buddhist militants and have little say in the affairs of their own country.
Doubts were also cast about several of her claims.
It seemed incredulous that Suu Kyi and her government did not know why the exodus is happening and her claim that a majority of “Rakhines” have not joined the exodus was as insulting as her claim that all people in Rakhine have access to education and health.
About one million Rohingya Muslims had been estimated to be living in northern Rakhine state.
Further, her statement that no “clearance operations” have been conducted since September 5 beggars belief amid the mounting evidence that suggests otherwise.
Diplomatic sources are confirming that threats posed by al-Qaeda and Islamic militants in northern Myanmar are very real and alongside recent events in Marawi in the Southern Philippines, pose the greatest immediate threat to the region.
But Myanmar’s response was as dreadful as it was unprofessional.
If Suu Kyi is serious about resolving the conflict, then some sense of safety and certainty must be restored. That starts with dropping all barriers that are thwarting independent journalists access into the area. Let reporters, UN personnel and responsible NGOs move freely across the north and without the hindrance of guided tours orchestrated by the military.
What is certain is Suu Kyi’s ability to polarize people at home and abroad. That divisiveness is in direct contrast to the expectations of a Nobel laureate, and will forever taint her legacy. But that could soon pale in comparison to what many are calling a mounting genocide.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt