Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi gave a much-anticipated address Tuesday on the ongoing crisis following the exodus of than 400,000 minority Rohingya Muslims from the country.
Speaking for over 30 minutes in English, it’s the first time Suu Kyi has addressed the situation in northern Rakhine State or the growing international criticism of her and her government.
However, many of the claims made in her speech are somewhat dubious, with some even appearing to contradict the findings of an official report commissioned by the government and compiled by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
‘We want to find out why this exodus is happening’
Suu Kyi’s protestations that the government does not know the root causes of the crisis are peculiar, especially as she repeatedly referenced the Annan report, the Final Report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.
The report, released in August, identified several key issues, including the lack of citizenship for stateless Rohingya Muslims as well as socio-economic challenges facing Rakhine, and police and military action in the state.
Following attacks on border police posts in October 2016, the report said, “subsequent military and police operations led to tens of thousands of Muslims fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.”
“While Myanmar has every right to defend its own territory, a highly militarized response is unlikely to bring peace to the area,” the report said.
“Unless concerted action – led by the government and aided by all sectors of the government and society – is taken soon, we risk the return of another cycle of violence and radicalisation, which will further deepen the chronic poverty that afflicts Rakhine State,” Annan said in a statement.
UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has said the situation in Myanmar seems like a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing,” a claim which has been repeated by multiple human rights groups.
Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have published damning reports on the causes of the exodus, including accusations the Myanmar military has deliberately burned Rohingya villages in a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the minority.
They backed up this conclusion with satellite imagery of fires, photos and videos from the ground, and witness testimony of human rights abuses by the Myanmar authorities.
‘Myanmar does not fear international scrutiny’
Suu Kyi said she is aware of the “world’s attention” focused on Myanmar presently, but said her government “does not fear international scrutiny.”
“If you are interested in joining us in our endeavors, please let us know,” she added. “We can arrange for you to visit these areas and to ask (those who have stayed) why they have not fled, why they have chosen to remain in their villages.”
While the situation may change following Suu Kyi’s speech, access to Rakhine State has been heavily restricted to media, human rights groups, and diplomats.
A tightly government-controlled media trip to Rakhine state was organized earlier this month, but permits for journalists to visit the area independently and interview people without official interference have been next to impossible to come by.
Amnesty International has accused the government of denying aid workers access to the state, while in January UN special rapporteur on human rights Yanghee Lee was prevented from visiting some parts of the state for “security reasons.”
Doctors Without Borders said it had been providing services to displaced people within Rakhine, “but international staff have not been granted travel authorizations to visit the health facilities since August, whilst national staff have been too afraid to go to work following remarks by Myanmar officials accusing NGOs of colluding with (militant groups).”
In December, Kofi Annan also appeared to criticize the government’s denial of access to Rakhine to aid groups and other NGOs.
‘The great majority of Rakhines in the state have not joined the exodus’
Rakhine State has a population of around 3.1 million, some one million of which are Rohingya Muslims.
The UN estimates that over 400,000 Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh since August 25. They joined around one million Rohingya already in the country who traveled there during previous periods of unrest.
Earlier this month, the government said 176 out of 471, or 37.4% of all Rohingya villages were empty of people, and an additional 34 villages were “partially abandoned.” During her speech, Suu Kyi said, “50% of the villages of Muslims are intact.”
Suu Kyi did not use the word “Rohingya” in her speech to describe Muslims living in Rakhine, so it is difficult to ascertain whether she is referring to the state’s entire population, or specifically the Rohingya population the UN and others say have been disproportionally affected by recent violence.
“Rohingya” is a politically charged term in Myanmar and one the government has repeatedly refused to endorse.
The only time Suu Kyi said the word during her speech was when she referred to the ARSA militant group – the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
“She chooses to use the word in relation to a terrorist group, that means that is the only identity that Rohingya will be attached to, from her perspective and she hopes from the international perspective,” said Penny Green, a professor of law at Queen Mary University of London.
‘All people (in Rakhine) have access to education and health care services’
Suu Kyi’s claims Rohingya have access to the same services as their non-Muslim neighbors is contradicted by the Annan commission’s report which found Muslims, in particular internally displaced persons, are “deprived of freedom of movement.”
“Movement restrictions have a wide range of detrimental effects, including reduced access to education, health and services, strengthened communal segregation, and reduced economic interaction,” the report said.
Moreover, it found that “access to health is particularly low within the Muslim community in the northern and central parts of the state. In some areas, Muslims face discriminative obstacles that prevent available lifesaving services from being accessed.”
Azeem Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy who has visited internally displaced person camps within Myanmar, told CNN the population there “don’t have the same level of access at all to anything.”
‘No clearance operations’ since September 5
In late August, Rohingya militants attacked and killed 12 security officers, according to Myanmar’s state media, which kicked off the latest round of violence.
Human rights groups and other observers say those attacks were responded to with a major military and security operation that included helicopter attacks and the burning of Rohingya villages. Refugees have also told CNN non-Muslim groups were armed and encouraged to attack their Muslim neighbors.
Government efforts to “restore the situation to normalcy” are succeeding, Suu Kyi said. “Since the fifth of September, there have been no armed clashes and there have been no clearance operations.”
However, satellite imagery examined by Amnesty International appears to show more than a dozen burned villages and fires since that date.
Human Rights Watch said 62 villages were torched between August 25 and September 14.
CNN’s Bex Wright and Josh Berlinger contributed reporting.