LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 22:  Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a meeting with members of the Myanmar community at the Royal Festival Hall on June 22, 2012 in central London, England. Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is on a four-day visit to the UK during her first trip to Europe since 1988.  (Photo by Suzanne Plunkett - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Myanmar leader denies ethnic cleansing
00:49 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Aung San Suu Kyi is a Nobel Peace Prize winner

She's been criticized for not doing enough to tackle alleged human rights abuses in Myanmar

CNN  — 

Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi has denied that ethnic cleansing has taken place against the country’s Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority.

Speaking to the BBC, Suu Kyi said “ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what’s happening” in northern Rakhine State.

Last month, a senior UN official told CNN that potential “crimes against humanity” were unfolding in the region, which has been racked by unrest and largely off limits to journalists and NGO workers since October last year.

UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee said that Suu Kyi should “speak up a little more” to protect the Rohingya, tens of thousands of whom have fled across the border to neighboring Bangladesh in recent months.

TEKNAF, BANGLADESH - JANUARY 18: Rohingyas walk through the Leda unregistered camp on January 18, 2017 in Teknaf, Bangladesh. More than 65,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar since October last year, after the Burmese army launched a campaign it calls "clearance operations" in response to an attack on border police on October 9, believed to have been carried out by Rohingya militants. Waves of Rohingya civilians have since fled across the border, most living in makeshift camps and refugee centers with harrowing stories on the Burmese army committing human-rights abuses, such as gang rape, arson and extrajudicial killing. The Rohingya, a mostly stateless Muslim group numbering about 1.1 million, are the majority in Rakhine state and smaller communities in Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia. The stateless Muslim group are routinely described by human rights organizations as the "most oppressed people in the world" and a "minority that continues to face statelessness and persecution." (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
Stories of horror from Myanmar's Rakhine State
04:40 - Source: CNN

The Rohingya are a stateless ethnic minority denied citizenship within Myanmar, where they are regarded as illegal Bengali migrants. There have been frequent outbreaks of violence in Rakhine between the Burmese majority and Rohingya groups.

Responding to Lee’s comments, Myanmar government spokeswoman Aye Aye Soe said the administration was “deeply concerned by reports of potential human rights abuses and have already set up an investigation commission.”

Unrest

The violence began on October 9, when according to state media, a group of around 300 armed men attacked soldiers and police, sparking an intense crackdown by the Myanmar military.

Who are the Rohingya?

  • The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state thought to number between 800,000 and one million.
  • Myanmar does not recognize them as citizens or one of the 135 recognized ethnic groups living in the country.
  • Much of this is rooted in their heritage in East Bengal, now called Bangladesh.
  • Though many Rohingya have only known life in Myanmar, they are widely viewed as intruders from across the border.
  • According to Human Rights Watch, laws discriminate against the Rohingya, infringing on their freedom of movement, education, and employment.
  • They are denied land and property rights and ownership, and land on which they live can be taken away at any given time.

  • “We attacked them using our machetes, swords, and knives, and we seized their weapons to use against them,” Atah Ullah – leader of the Harakat al-Yaqeen, or “Faith Movement,” which carried out the attack – told CNN earlier this year.

    “We, the vulnerable and persecuted people, have asked the international community for protection against the atrocities by the government of Myanmar, but the international community turned its back on us,” he said.

    “Finally, we cannot take it anymore.”

    The Myanmar military has arrested hundreds of people in Rakhine, deployed attack helicopters and allegedly torched villages, causing thousands of refugees to flee the region.

    Amnesty International said it has documented “a wide range of human rights violations” since the crackdown began, while Human Rights Watch accused the military of “numerous abuses … including widespread arson, extrajudicial killings, and systematic rape and other sexual violence.”

    In a piece for CNN Opinion in December, Matthew Smith of Thailand-based Fortify Rights warned that the world may be “watching a possible genocide unfold” in Rakhine.

    inside rohingya resistance watson pkg_00000107.jpg
    Inside the Rohingya resistance
    03:26 - Source: CNN

    Divisions

    Suu Kyi was barred from becoming Myanmar’s president after the country’s transition to limited democracy in 2015, but as state counselor she is the country’s de facto leader.

    The longtime democracy campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate told the BBC the situation in Rakhine was more complicated than the international media had made it out to be.

    “I think there is a lot of hostility there – it is Muslims killing Muslims as well, if they think they are cooperating with the authorities,” she said.

    “It is not just a matter of ethnic cleansing, as you put it – it is a matter of people on different sides of the divide, and this divide we are trying to close up.”

    In the run-up to the country’s general election in 2015 – its first democratic vote in decades – many Rohingya hoped Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy would take up their cause.

    She said she’d been pressed to answer questions about her stance on the Rohingya since 2012, when sectarian violence broke out.

    “(Reporters) would ask me questions and I would answer them, and people would say I said nothing. Simply because I did not make the statements people wanted, which people wanted me to make, simply to condemn one community or the other,” Suu Kyi said.

    rohingya alan kurdi pkg mohsin_00024512.jpg
    Myanmar Police filmed beating Rohingya
    04:13 - Source: CNN

    Military rule

    While Suu Kyi is the most powerful civilian politician in Myanmar, the country’s military still possesses a great deal of influence.

    Under the constitution – drafted by the former junta – the military retains 25% of the seats in parliament, and control of security matters.

    Prior to 2015, the military, also known as the Tatmadaw, was accused of a raft of human rights abuses, including use of forced labor and child soldiers, rape and torture.

    The Tatmadaw is responsible for current security actions in Rakhine, where it has been accused of similar crimes.

    Suu Kyi denied this week that the military had free rein in the region.

    “They are not free to rape, pillage and torture,” she said. “They are free to go in and fight. That is in the constitution. Military matters are to be left to the army.”

    She promised that Rohingya who have fled Myanmar to neighboring countries “will be safe” if they returned.

    “We welcome them and we will welcome them back,” Suu Kyi said.

    CNN’s Bex Wright contributed reporting.