Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has said her government does not fear “international scrutiny” of its handling of the growing Rohingya crisis.
It was her first address to the country about the violence in northern Rakhine state that has seen more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims cross into Bangladesh.
Ms Suu Kyi has faced heavy criticism for her response to the crisis.
She said there had been no “clearance operations” for two weeks.
In her speech in English to Myanmar’s parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi said she felt “deeply” for the suffering of “all people” in the conflict, and that Myanmar was “committed to a sustainable solution… for all communities in this state”.
Ms Suu Kyi, who has decided not to attend the UN General Assembly in New York later this week, said she nevertheless wanted the international community to know what was being done by her government.
Hours after her speech, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva called for full access to the region so it can investigate the situation “with its own eyes”.
What is the crisis about?
Rakhine has faced unrest and sporadic violence for years, but the current crisis began in August with an armed attack on police posts which killed 12 people.
That was blamed on a newly emerged militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa).
The Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority, are denied citizenship and equal opportunities by the Myanmar government, which says they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They are largely despised by the wider Burmese majority-Buddhist population.
- Who are the Rohingya group behind attacks?
- What sparked latest violence in Rakhine?
The attack lead to a massive security crackdown by the military, which the UN’s human rights chief later said seemed like a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Rohingya Muslims started leaving in vast numbers, crossing into Bangladesh with tales of their villages being burned and saying they were facing persecution at the hands of the military. Thousands of Rohingya had already fled to Bangladesh in recent years.
Access is restricted to the area, but on a government-controlled trip for journalists the BBC found reason to question the official narrative that Muslims were setting fire to their own villages.
- Seeing through the official story in Myanmar
- How much power does Aung San Suu Kyi really have?
What did Suu Kyi say in her the speech?
The Myanmar government does not use the term Rohingya – calling the group Bengali Muslims instead – and Ms Suu Kyi did not do so in her speech.
Delivering her address in a tone of measured defiance, she said she and her government “condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence”.
Among the key points:
- She did not address allegations against the military, saying only that there had been “no armed clashes or clearance operations” since 5 September.
- She said most Muslims had decided to stay in Rakhine and that indicated the situation may not be so severe.
- She said she wanted to speak to both Muslims who had fled and those who had stayed to find out what was at the root of the crisis.
- She said the government had made efforts in recent years to improve living conditions for the Muslims living in Rakhine: providing healthcare, education and infrastructure.
- She also said that all refugees in Bangladesh would be able to return after a process of verification.
How was the speech received?
Ms Suu Kyi has overwhelming support in her home country, where she was a political prisoner for years before coming to power.
But her speech has been criticised internationally for failing to address the allegations of abuse by the military.
The BBC’s Jonathan Head, who is in neighbouring Bangladesh, disputed the claim that there had been no clearance operations since 5 September, pointing out that he had seen villages being burned days after that date.
Amnesty International said Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was “burying her head in the sand” by ignoring the abuses by the army.
“At times, her speech amounted to little more than a mix of untruths and victim blaming,” the rights group’s director for South East Asia and the Pacific, James Gomes, said in a statement.
‘Blind to the realities?’
By Jonah Fisher, BBC News, Nay Pyi Taw
Aung San Suu Kyi is either completely out of touch or wilfully blind to the realities of what her army is up to.
It is simply not credible to say we don’t know why more than 400,000 Rohingya have fled. The evidence is being gathered every day in the testimony of refugees.
There were other moments that raised eyebrows. Like when she presented as good news the fact that more than half the Muslims in Rakhine haven’t fled. Or when she said that there had been no clashes in Rakhine for the last two weeks.
To say as she did that “all people in Rakhine state have access to education and healthcare without discrimination” is simply wrong.
The Rohingya, particularly those in camps around Sittwe, have long been denied access to the most basic services, in particular healthcare.
What is Myanmar’s position?
While Ms Suu Kyi is the de facto head of the government of Myanmar, also known as Burma, it is the military which holds real power in Rakhine state as it is in charge of internal security.
The Burmese military says its operations in the northern Rakhine state are aimed at rooting out militants, and has repeatedly denied targeting civilians.
Ms Suu Kyi has previously said the narrative was being distorted by a “huge iceberg of misinformation” and said tensions were being fanned by fake news promoting the interests of terrorists.