NAY PYI TAW: It took an exodus of hundreds of thousands, more than three weeks of reported violence, and a lot of pressure from the United Nations, fellow Nobel Peace and world leaders for Aung San Suu Kyi to publicly address the deadly conflict in Rakhine State.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who now leads the Myanmar government through her role as State Counsellor, had previously released a terse statement, saying there was a “huge iceberg of misinformation” on the situation in Rakhine.
On Tuesday (Sep 19), without mentioning “Rohingya” – a term shunned by many Myanmar nationals who do not accept the Rohingya Muslim as an ethnic group in their country – the Nobel Peace laureate uttered carefully-worded lines of condemnation against alleged human rights violations.
She also highlighted, several times throughout her televised speech, the government’s commitment to the restoration of peace, stability and rule of law in the region scarred by armed conflict between insurgents – the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – and security forces.
Since Aug 25 - when the ARSA attacked 30 official posts and killed 12 people - tensions in Rakhine State have skyrocketed. The Myanmar army and police forces launched “clearance operations” against the insurgents; but critics say this was an excuse for murder, mass rape, torture and arson attacks on innocent Muslim civilians.
Over the past three weeks, more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. About 60 per cent of them are children, according to the United Nations.
Several people did not survive the perilous journey across the border to safety. Many who did are fighting to stay alive in squalid refugee camps amid a shortage of humanitarian supplies.
'MYANMAR HAS NEVER BEEN SOFT ON HUMAN RIGHTS'
Speaking about the Rohingya exodus, Aung San Suu Kyi said her government does not know why it still continues, stating that security operations in Rakhine State stopped on Sep 5.
“We’re concerned to hear that numbers of Muslims are fleeing across the border to Bangladesh,” she told foreign diplomats at the International Convention Centre in the capital. “We want to find out why this exodus is happening."
Her words fell flat with rights advocate Kyaw Min, chairman of the Democracy and Human Rights Party and former Rohingya MP-elect. “I don’t understand why she doesn’t know," he told Channel NewsAsia.
“As a national leader, she should know the reasons behind the exodus.”
During her speech, Aung San Suu Kyi also said more than 50 per cent of the Muslim villages in Rakhine remain “intact” despite the security crisis and assured them that Myanmar has “never been soft on human rights”.
“Our government has emerged as a body committed to the defence of human rights, not of any particular community’s rights, but of the rights of all human beings within the borders of our country.”
For Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, the assertion was nothing but a “sad joke”.
“She’s not the one engaged in the ethnic cleansing and committing human rights atrocities against the Rohingya. She has no real authority over the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar army). So this whole line about telling soldiers what to do is a sad joke,” Robertson told Channel NewsAsia.
“It’s astonishing that she thinks anyone believes this lame line of hers.”
On Sep 17, the State Counsellor Office posted on its Facebook page that villagers from 176 Rohingya villages in Maungtaw, Budhidaung and Yathedaung townships had fled Rakhine overseas because of their involvement with insurgency and fear of arrest.
A FRIENDLY APPEAL TO THE WORLD
Aung San Suu Kyi described her 30-minute speech as a diplomatic briefing and “a friendly appeal to all those who wish Myanmar well”.
While it was an acknowledgement of the international concern and pressure, the address appeared to be a request for understanding and sympathy as her National League for Democracy party tries to please both the nation and the world.
“It is only by cooperating that our world can go forward,” she said. “Attacking each other – either in words or with weapons, or even with emotions – will not help us.”
During her speech, the Nobel Peace laureate explained her long silence on the worsening crisis in Rakhine, saying she had not gone into any of “the allegations and counter allegations” to avoid promoting conflict. “It is not my purpose to promote and encourage conflict, whether of ideas or of arms, but to try to promote harmony and understanding.”
The de facto leader of Myanmar also vowed that action will be taken against whoever goes against the law and violates human rights – “regardless of their religion, race or political position”. This is as long as the allegations are based on solid evidence, she added.
According to Aung San Suu Kyi, authorities have been instructed to “adhere strictly” to the code of conduct in carrying out security operations, to exercise “all due restraints”, and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and harming of innocent civilians.
“Human rights violations will be addressed in a strict norm of justice."
NATIONALISTS THINK GOVERNMENT SHOULD DO MORE
Aung San Suu Kyi’s emphasis on human rights and the country’s transition to democracy might have pleased many people who listened to her speech; but for Myanmar nationalists, it is not what the country should be focusing on.
Former MP from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party Hla Swe told Channel NewsAsia that the ongoing crisis in Rakhine is a result of the government’s decision to place human rights and democracy above nationalism.
“That’s why Bengalis are increasingly active. From what I understand, the military has warned the government many times, telling them to respond quickly. But they think the military is their rival and that’s why the conflict occurred.”
“Bengali” is a local slur that refers to Rohingya Muslims. Many people in Myanmar believe they are immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh and not part of Myanmar’s ethnic minority.
In her address, Suu Kyi referred to Rohingya as “Muslims”. She also asked the global community not to only concentrate just on the Rohingya but to look at Myanmar as a whole, as the country faces “serious” problems.
“Think of our country as a whole, not just as little affected areas. It is as a whole only that we can make progress,” she said, before concluding her speech with an invitation to the world to help bridge differences in her country.
“Join us. Talk to us. Discuss with us. Go with us to the troubled areas. See for yourselves what is happening and think for yourselves: ‘What can we do to remove these problems?’
“We have to remove the negative and increase the positive. And we would like to do that together with all of you.”
ACTIVIST TURNED POLITICIAN
The speech of Myanmar's state counsellor was received with mixed reactions on Tuesday. For prominent human rights activist Ma Thida - once an active supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi - it reflects her transformation from an activist into a politician.
"When she was an activist, she acted like an activist. Now, she is a politician and she acts like one," Ma Thida told Channel NewsAsia.
The former prisoner of conscience, who was jailed for more than five years during Myanmar's authoritarian rule, praised the democracy icon she once supported for her ability to speak with balance.
Yet, she added, the speech came weeks too late.
"Our government's response to the Rakhine crisis is slow," she said. "We understand they're carefully handling the political situation. Her civilian government is negotiating for power; we get that. But it's still difficult to get a clear picture of the Rakhine crisis."
Asked about human rights protection which Aung San Suu Kyi emphasised, Aung San Suu Kyi's former aide gave a short reply.
"I agree they're trying to protect human rights but I can't agree the government has protected them."
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