Myanmar is ready to start a verification process to let some 400,000 refugees who have crossed into Bangladesh to return, de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi said in her first public remarks that some say did not address the Rohingya crisis.
The Nobel Peace laureate has come under fire from the international community and rights groups for keeping mum since an army crackdown on insurgents also drove the Muslim Rohingya from their homes in Rakhine state.
"Those who have been verified as refugees from this country will be accepted without any problem and with full assurance of their security and access to humanitarian aid," Ms Suu Kyi said in a 30-minute speech delivered entirely in English in the capital, Naypyitaw.
The refugees are mostly Rohingya who are deemed illegal "Bengali" migrants from present-day Bangladesh. Most of them live in Rakhine, one of the poorest states.
On Aug 25, insurgents claiming to fight for Rohingya rights attacked police posts and an army base, sparking an operation by security forces that is now being condemned as ethnic cleansing - a charge Naypyitaw denies.
Many who fled to Bangladesh say they were driven out by a mix of security forces and ethnic Rakhine vigilantes, who then set their homes on fire. In addition to those who had fled during earlier bouts of conflict, south-eastern Bangladesh now hosts some 700,000 Rohingya. Analysts fear regional militants may be drawn to this conflict.
Ms Suu Kyi stressed yesterday that the bulk of Rohingya in Rakhine did not flee Myanmar.
"I think it is very little known that the great majority of Muslims in Rakhine state have not joined the exodus," she said, avoiding the term "Rohingya", which is not recognised as an ethnic group by the government. "More than 50 per cent of the villages of Muslims are intact."
But she said: "We want to understand why this exodus is happening. We would like to talk to those who have fled as well as those who have stayed."
Ms Suu Kyi's speech, telecast on television and the Internet, did not touch on alleged military atrocities.
Instead, she said "we condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence", and promised that action will be taken against perpetrators "regardless of their religion, race and political position".
The speech drew scathing comments from human rights groups, which had hoped for a stronger stance. Amnesty International said she and her government were just "burying their heads in the sand".
"The real subtext is that she can't do anything about this, and she is not going to do anything about this," independent analyst Kim Jolliffe, who specialises in security and humanitarian affairs, told The Straits Times.
There is little that Ms Suu Kyi can do directly. Despite its parliamentary majority, her National League for Democracy party has no say on military matters or on key portfolios that run the civil service. In Rakhine, she also has to contend with ethnic Rakhine defensive of their rights and aggrieved by all the global attention on the Rohingya.
Nationalist army chief Min Aung Hlaing, who operates independently of Ms Suu Kyi, told the nation in a Facebook post on Saturday to unite over the issue.
While Ms Suu Kyi has promised to implement recommendations for Rakhine's security and development drawn up by a commission led by former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, her government has said it will refuse visas to a UN fact-finding team.
Yesterday, she invited diplomats to visit villages in Rakhine unaffected by the conflict, and urged them to see the larger picture of Myanmar's "fragile" democratic transition. "We would like you to think of our country as a whole," she said. "It is as a whole only, that we can make progress."
Many of Ms Suu Kyi's supporters gathered to listen to her speech.
"They see her as defending (the reputation of) the country," said Mr Sein Win, training director of the Myanmar Journalism Institute.
But given allegations of discrimination that have surfaced, Mr Sein Win said he was disappointed that Ms Suu Kyi did not talk about how specific displaced communities in Rakhine state would receive help.
By generalising, he said, "sometimes you miss the point".