YANGON • Ms Aung San Suu Kyi has denied security forces have carried out ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, speaking to the BBC after the United Nations rights council agreed to investigate allegations of rape, murder and torture against the army.
"I don't think there is ethnic cleansing going on," Myanmar's de facto leader said when asked by the BBC on Wednesday if she would be remembered as the Nobel Peace Prize winner who ignored ethnic cleansing in her own country.
"I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening," she said.
Rights groups say hundreds of the stateless group were killed in a months-long army crackdown following deadly attacks last October on Myanmar border police posts in the Rakhine region. Almost 75,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, where they have related grisly accounts of army abuse.
Ms Suu Kyi, whose international star as a rights defender is waning over the treatment of the Rohingya, has not spoken out in defence of the persecuted minority.
She has also not condemned the crackdown, which UN investigators who spoke to escapees said likely amounted to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
Instead, she has called for space to handle the incendiary issue in a country where the more than one million Rohingya are widely vilified as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Last month, the UN rights council agreed to send a fact-finding mission to examine allegations of torture, murder and rape allegedly committed by troops.
Ms Suu Kyi told the BBC there was "a lot of hostility" in Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh.
"It is Muslims killing Muslims as well, if they think they are collaborating with the authorities.
"It is not just a matter of ethnic cleansing. It is a matter of people on different sides of a divide, and this divide we are trying to close up, " she said. "What we are trying to go for is reconciliation, not condemnation."
Myanmar has launched its own domestic probe into possible crimes in Rakhine, and has appointed former UN chief Kofi Annan to head a commission tasked with healing long-simmering divisions between Buddhists and Muslims. Ms Suu Kyi said the army was "not free to rape, pillage and torture".
"They are free to go in and fight. And of course, that is in the Constitution... Military matters are to be left to the army," she said, adding that she aims to amend the Constitution, which allows the military total control of defence.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS