SITTWE, MYANMAR (REUTERS, AFP) - Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on Thursday (Nov 2) urged people “not to quarrel” as she visited areas riven by ethnic violence for the first time, reportedly meeting Rohingya Muslims who have faced an army crackdown that has seen hundreds of thousands of the minority flee.
Reuters photographers saw thousands of desperate Rohingya wade through shallows and narrow creeks between islands of the Naf river to reach neighbouring Bangladesh the previous evening.
Suu Kyi, a nobel laureate who leads Myanmar’s pro-democracy party, has been hammered by the international community for failing to use her moral power to speak up in defence of the Rohingya. Some 600,000 of the stateless minority have fled to Bangladesh since late August carrying accounts of murder, rape and arson at the hands of Myanmar’s powerful army, after militant raids sparked a ferocious military retaliation.
The UN says that crackdown is likely tantamount to ethnic cleansing, while pressure has mounted on Myanmar to provide security for the Rohingya and allow people to return home.
Suu Kyi left via state capital Sittwe as evening fell on Thursday after a visit that also took in Maungdaw and Buthidaung in northern Rakhine.
“The Lady” – as she in known – did meet with the Rohingya community in Maungdaw town, according to local media, a first for a leader keen to convince observers inside the country and abroad that the crisis has abated and reconstruction of Rakhine can begin.
“On the road where some people gathered, she stopped the car and talked to everyone,” said Chris Lewa, from the Arakan Project monitoring group, citing a Rohingya religious leader who was present.
“She only said three things to the people – they should live peacefully, the government is there to help them, and they should not quarrel among each other.”
Lately Suu Kyi, who does not control the military, has appeared to take a stronger lead in the crisis, focusing government efforts on rehabilitation and pledging to repatriate refugees.
But it was not clear if she visited some of the hundreds of Rohingya villages torched by the army – allegedly aided by ethnic Rakhine Buddhist locals.
TALKS ON REPATRIATION
Suu Kyi had not previously visited Rakhine since assuming power last year following a landslide 2015 election victory. The majority of residents in the northern part of the state, which includes Maungdaw, were Muslims until the recent crisis.
Myanmar has rejected the accusations of ethnic cleansing, saying its security forces launched a counter-insurgency operation after Rohingya militants attacked 30 security posts in northern Rakhine on Aug. 25.
Refugees in the Bangladesh camps say the Myanmar army torched their villages, but Myanmar blames Rohingya militants.
Suu Kyi was accompanied by about 20 people travelling in two military helicopters, including military, police and state officials, the Reuters reporter said.
Businessman Zaw Zaw, formerly sanctioned by the US Treasury for his ties to Myanmar’s junta, was also with the Nobel laureate.
Suu Kyi launched a project last month to help rehabilitation and resettlement in Rakhine and has urged tycoons to contribute. She has pledged to allow the return of refugees who can prove they were residents of Myanmar, but thousands of people have continued to flee to Bangladesh.
Talks with Bangladesh have yet to deliver a pact on a repatriation process made more complex because Myanmar has long denied citizenship to the Rohingya.
Suu Kyi’s spokesman voiced fears on Tuesday that Bangladesh could be stalling on the accord to first get millions of dollars of international aid money, an accusation a senior Bangladesh home ministry official described as outrageous.
But the scene on Wednesday at the Naf river showed Rohingya were still ready to risk being destitute in Bangladesh, rather than stay in Myanmar in fear for their lives.
Thousands of others are believed to still be camped on a beach near Maungdaw awaiting boats to Bangladesh in increasingly parlous conditions.
‘HERE FOR GENERATIONS’
The Rohingya in Buddhist-majority Myanmar are denied citizenship and widely dismissed as illegal “Bengali” immigrants.
Their legal status is at the crux of communal tensions, with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists adamant that Rohingya are foreign interlopers.
A Rohingya resident of Maungdaw town who has stayed despite soaring tensions appealed to Suu Kyi to reconsider foisting a controversial national verification card (NVC) on the minority.
The card grants them limited rights to residence in Myanmar, but does not recognise them as Rohingya and therefore an ethnic group with citizenship rights.
The Muslim group say the NVC is another bureaucratic attempt erase their identity, forcing a shaky temporary legal status onto the Rohingya in a region where they claim generations of ancestry.
“We can not do anything with this NVC card, so we do not want to receive it,” the resident said, requesting anonymity fearing reprisals. “We are not Bengalis from Bangladesh, we are Rohingya living here for generations.”
Observers say Suu Kyi has chosen not to criticise the army in fear of a backlash from a powerful institution that controls all security matters.
The political-prisoner-turned-politician was accompanied on her Rakhine trip by powerful Myanmar businessman Zaw Zaw, one of a host of “cronies” of the military who thrived under junta rule and who are now taking a prominent role in infrastructure projects in the battered region.
The plight of the Rohingya garners little sympathy inside Myanmar, making any defence of the minority a politically unpopular cause amid surging Buddhist nationalist sentiment.
Suu Kyi heads a committee charged with rebuilding Rakhine and repatriating Rohingya from Bangladesh who meet strict criteria for re-entry to Myanmar.
On Wednesday, spokesman Zaw Htay accused Bangladesh of delaying the start of the repatriation process.
Dhaka has yet to send an official list of the Rohingya who have fled since August 25, he told AFP.
The Rohingya have packed into makeshift camps on a poor, already overcrowded slip of border land inside Bangladesh.
Aid groups say the risk of major outbreaks of disease is high while they struggle to deliver food and basic supplies to the unprecedented number of refugees.