Suu Kyi silence on Myanmar ethnic cleansing charge draws cool response

By Antoni Slodkowski and David Brunnstrom
Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi walks off the stage after delivering a speech to the nation over Rakhine and Rohingya situation, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

By Antoni Slodkowski and David Brunnstrom

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday condemned rights abuses in Rakhine state and said violators would be punished, but she did not address U.N. accusations of ethnic cleansing, drawing cool international responses and calls for action to help minority Muslims.

Suu Kyi made the remarks in her first address to the nation since attacks by Rohingya Muslim insurgents on Aug. 25 led to a military response that has forced 421,000 Rohingya Muslims, more than half of them children, into neighboring Bangladesh.

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

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.

"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.

In a phone call to Suu Kyi, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson welcomed the Myanmar government's commitment to allow the return of refugees, but urged it to facilitate humanitarian aid to those affected by the violence and to address "deeply troubling" human rights abuse allegations, the State Department said.

Britain said it had suspended its military training program in Myanmar and French President Emmanuel Macron condemned "unacceptable ethnic cleaning". He told the annual U.N. General Assembly he would start a U.N. Security Council initiative to ensure humanitarian access and an end to the violence.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the General Assembly: "The authorities in Myanmar must end the military operations, allow unhindered humanitarian access and recognize the right of refugees to return in safety and dignity; and they must also address the grievances of the Rohingya, whose status has been left unresolved for far too long."

A European Union spokeswoman said Suu Kyi's invitation to the diplomatic corps to visit Rakhine was "a step forward," but added: "Myanmar's leadership needs to show that the democracy they fought so hard for can work for all the people of Myanmar, beyond ethnic, social and religious boundaries."

At the General Assembly, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari likened the violence in Myanmar to genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cited the international community's failure in Syria.

"Unless the tragedy taking place in Myanmar is brought to a halt, humanity will have to live with the shame of another dark stain in its history," Erdogan said.

Twenty-two members of the U.S. Congress wrote to Tillerson calling for a “strong, meaningful” response to the crisis and the head of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, said Suu Kyi risked “destroying” her reputation as a force for positive change.

“She had yet another opportunity today to stand up for the Rohingya minority ... but instead refused to acknowledge the military’s role in the ongoing atrocities,” he said.

Amnesty International described Suu Kyi's 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.

Myanmar's generals remain in full charge of security and Suu Kyi did not comment on the military or its actions, 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.

BURNING VILLAGES

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 U.N. rights agency said it was "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing".

Myanmar rejects the charge, saying its forces are tackling insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army who it has accused 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 and alienating supporters by being seen to take the side of a Muslim minority that enjoys little sympathy in a country that has seen a surge of Buddhist nationalism.

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 military faced the fact that the security forces "shoot and kill who they want."

'READY TO EXPLODE'

Suu Kyi, 72, 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 that tensions were high.

"The situation is ready to explode."

Suu Kyi said she was committed to recommendations made by the advisory team led by Kofi Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general, 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".

(Additional reporting by Wa Lone and Andrew Marshall in SITTWE; Shoon Naing, Yimou Lee in YANGON; Tom Miles in GENEVA; David Brunnstrom, Michelle Nichols, John Irish and Parisa Hafezi at the UNITED NATIONS; Kylie MacLellan in LONDON and Makini Brice and Patricia Zengerle in WASHINGTON; Writing by Robert Birsel and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Grant McCool and Howard Goller)