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'We want to find out why this exodus is happening' - Aung San Suu Kyi treats Rohingya crisis as a mystery

Updated Wednesday 20 September 2017 8:37
'We want to find out why this exodus is happening' - Aung San Suu Kyi treats Rohingya crisis as a mystery

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With nearly half of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim population having fled the country in the past three weeks, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the crisis publicly for the first time — and called it a mystery.

“We want to find out why this exodus is happening,” Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar’s governing party, said Tuesday in a nationally televised speech from the capital, Naypyitaw.

The reasons why more than 400,000 Rohingya have escaped over the border into Bangladesh have been well documented by human rights groups: the Myanmar army, responding to an Aug. 25 insurgent attack, is carrying out deadly “clearance operations” in the western state of Rakhine, shooting civilians as they flee and burning Rohingya villages to the ground. The United Nations' top human rights official has called it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

But in a closely watched speech, Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who was jailed for more than a decade by Myanmar’s former military rulers, defended the army and accused the international community of overlooking the other challenges facing Myanmar, an overwhelmingly Buddhist country where an estimated 1 million Rohingya Muslims have long complained of persecution.

“We would like you to think of our country as a whole, not as little afflicted areas,” Suu Kyi said in English, aiming her half-hour address at foreign diplomats and fellow Nobel laureates who have grown increasingly dismayed by the violence and her near-silence refusal to speak out in favor of the Rohingya.

Human rights groups

But as she has done for years, Suu Kyi played down the suffering of the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship in Myanmar, saying that “the great majority of Muslims in Rakhine state have not joined the exodus.”

Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar’s governing party and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, said the army has carried out no operations since Sept. 5 — although humanitarian workers and journalists in Bangladesh reported fires in Myanmar villages as recently as last week, and refugees have continued to stream across the border.

“There have been allegations and counter-allegations, and we have to listen to all of them,” she said. “And we have to make sure these allegations are based on solid evidence before we take action.”

The speech, delivered in Naypyitaw, the remote capital of the country also known as Burma, was Suu Kyi’s first national address since Aug. 25, when Rohingya Muslim insurgents attacked police and army posts in the western state of Rakhine, killing about 12 security personnel.

The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch said Tuesday that an analysis of satellite imagery showed tens of thousands of homes across 214 villages had been destroyed.

“These images provide shocking evidence of massive destruction in an apparent attempt by Burmese security forces to prevent the Rohingya from returning to their villages,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Myanmar military officials have alleged that Rohingya villagers and insurgents set fire to the homes, but Human Rights Watch and others say there is no evidence to support that claim.

The group called on the U.N. General Assembly, meeting this week in New York, to condemn the Myanmar military campaign and urged the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions and an arms embargo against the army.

“World leaders meeting at the U.N. should act to end this mounting crisis and show Burma’s military leaders they will pay a price for such atrocities,” Robertson said.

Suu Kyi skipped the U.N. gathering to deal with the crisis in Rakhine, which has generated worldwide outrage, much of it directed at her near-silence on the issue. A former political prisoner who led the struggle to end Myanmar’s half-century of military rule, Suu Kyi has disappointed allies in the United States and other countries by failing to stand up for the rights of her country’s most vulnerable people.

In some of her only public comments on the issue before the speech, Suu Kyi this month defended the army, saying that accounts of military atrocities were part of “a huge iceberg of misinformation.”

Those sympathetic to Suu Kyi say her hands are tied because, as part of Myanmar’s incomplete transition to democracy, the army still retains enormous power, including total control of security affairs and the civil service.

The military campaign also enjoys support from the country’s overwhelmingly Buddhist population, much of which agrees with the government that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and not among the dozens of national ethnicities officially recognized by Myanmar. Rohingya activists strongly dispute this, saying many families have lived in Myanmar for generations.

The Rohingyas’ struggle for rights has been complicated by the rise of an insurgent group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army, which has carried out multiple attacks against Myanmar security forces since last October.

In August, a commission headed by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to evaluate the Rakhine crisis called on the government to end the “enforced segregation” of Buddhists and Muslims in the state, ensure access for humanitarian groups, revise citizenship laws that exclude the Rohingya and end restrictions on freedom of movement.

Suu Kyi said her government would act on the report’s findings.

“Every single recommendation that will benefit peace and harmony and development in the Rakhine state will be implemented within the shortest time possible,” she said.

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