RANGOON, Burma — In her first major speech Tuesday on the worsening Rohingya crisis, Burma’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, sidestepped allegations of atrocities committed against the stateless Muslim minority and cast the conflict as just one of many problems ailing the country.
Appearing to cast doubt on claims that the military has burned homes, killed civilians and driven families over the border into Bangladesh, Suu Kyi told an audience of diplomats, observers and the media in the capital Naypyitaw that there have been “allegations and counterallegations.”
“There has been much concern around the world with regard to the situation in Rakhine. It is not the intention of the Myanmar government to apportion blame or to abnegate responsibility. We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence,” she said, vowing to look into the abuses but stopping short of singling out perpetrators.
“We feel deeply for the suffering of all the people who have been caught up in the conflict,” she added. Burma is also known as Myanmar.
This was the first time that Suu Kyi has publicly addressed the nation since the crisis began on Aug.25, when insurgents from the newly formed Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked dozens of police posts in the northern state of Rakhine.
The militants killed at least 12 members of the security forces andtriggered a military campaign that hasdriven more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh.
It has also unleashed a torrent of international criticism.
Top United Nations officials have described the campaign as “ethnic cleansing,” and harrowing accounts of atrocities allegedly carried out by Burma’s armed forces have emerged from refugees in camps in Bangladesh with a chilling consistency.
Burma’s government says it is hunting terrorists and has killed hundreds of combatants, and that Buddhists and other non-Muslim civilians have also died in the violence.
While acknowledging the suffering and concern, Suu Kyi seemed puzzled as to why some people were leaving since so many had stayed behind.
“We want to find out why this exodus is happening,” she said, speaking in English and referring to her remarks as a diplomatic briefing. “I think it is very little known that the great majority of Muslims in Rakhine State have not joined the exodus.”
She avoided the use of the term Rohingya except to refer to the insurgent group. Burma does not recognize the Rohingya, insisting they are immigrants from Bangladesh despite having lived here for generations.
In a recent interview, Burma’s ambassador to the United States Aung Lynn rebuted allegations of ethnic cleansing and, channeling President Trump, pointed to the “false media.”
Pressure has been building on Suu Kyi to speak out against the violence, and she has left many former supporters disappointed by her apparent reluctance to condemn it, leading to calls for her 1991 Nobel peace prize to be revoked.
But supporters argue she is preserving her political capital in a primarily Buddhist country of 52 million that does not see Rohingya rights as a top priority and in which many view the more than 1 million Muslims as foreign interlopers.
Suu Kyi’s attempt at balance Tuesday may resonate locally with supporters who don’t understand the international focus on the Rohingya plight.
“We would like you to think of our country as a whole, not just as little afflicted areas,” she said.
She said that since Sept. 5, there have been no more military operations, but satellite photos and smoke rising from burning villages visible across the border in Bangladesh belie the claim.
On Thursday, outside the vast Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, which abuts the border, black smoke from at least two locations burning on the Burma side were visible in the sky.
The existing camps in Bangladesh are overflowing with refugees, many of whom have set up makeshift shelters of bamboo poles and black plastic sheeting, or are just squatting helpless by the side of the road.
Chris Lewa, of the activist group the Arakan Project, said an analysis of satellite images showed that a large number of villages were burned in the area of Rathedaung township in northern Rakhine state on Sept. 8 and 9, sending an estimated 8,000 Rohingya fleeing toward Bangladesh. She described the burning as “total devastation.”
The stateless minority has been without rights or citizenship for decades, but while waves of migration have occurred before, experts say this is the largest exodus in such a short time period. Bangladesh is already home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees. Last year, after ARSA’s first attack sparked reprisals, nearly 90,000 Rohingya crossed the border.
The influx of refugees has revived longstanding tensions between the two countries. Bangladesh has complained that Burma has been violating its airspace and possibly laying landmines along the border. Officials in Bangladesh have also said the death toll could be in the thousands.
Suu Kyi skipped the United Nations General Assembly, sending one of the country’s two vice-presidents in her place. But Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is expected to address the crisis at the assembly.
In the few times that Suu Kyi has spoken about the violence, she has been criticized for appearing callous and out of touch, referring to an “iceberg of misinformation” in a call with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In the speech Tuesday, she also made dubious claims about development in Rakhine state, saying health-care services were available to everyone without discrimination, contrary to the experience of tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who are confined to camps in the central part of the state since intercommunal violence erupted in 2012.
The speech signaled an attempt to reach as broad an audience as possible and was a nod to the international community who will need no translation to hear her words.
Foreign eaction to the speech was swift and harsh, however. James Gomez, Amnesty International’s regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement that Suu Kyi and her government were “burying their heads in the sand over the horrors unfolding in Rakhine State.”
But it appeared to go over well at home. In a rare attempt at wide distribution, efforts were made to make it available to a domestic audience. State television and radio channels broadcast the remarks, and a live screening of it was held in downtown Rangoon in front of City Hall, attracting a large audience.
Many people attended to show their support, waving signs that said “we stand together with Mother Suu.”
In the decades-long fight for democracy in Burma, the military was Suu Kyi’s greatest foe, and still holds considerably power even though her party won elections in 2015.
But a common foe in Rakhine state has made them newfound allies.
“We will stand by Aung San Suu Kyi. We will stand by our government. We will stand by our army,” one sign said.
Cheers went up and red balloons were released into the air over City Hall when Suu Kyi appeared on the screen to speak.
Zaw Win Phyoe, a cellphone shop owner, said he came out to show support.
“We want to stand with our leader,” he said.
He argued the issue was about immigration from Bangladesh, not Muslim and Buddhist ties.
“I have Muslims friends, so many Muslim friends, no problem,” he said.
Annie Gowen contributed to this report from New Delhi.
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