SINGAPORE - Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday (Aug 21) defended the steps her government has made in handling the Rohingya crisis, amid global criticism on the issue.
Ms Suu Kyi, who is State Counsellor, is in Singapore on a four-day working visit and used a rare public speech abroad to also urge investors to look to her fast-growing country, as she outlined what Myanmar had done to bring about peace and national reconciliation.
"We share deep sympathy and concern for all displaced persons, especially women and children," she said, noting there were around four million Myanmar migrant workers and displaced persons in Thailand, and both countries were working to resolve the issue amicably.
"Similarly, we hope to work with Bangladesh to effect the voluntary, safe and dignified return of displaced persons from northern Rakhine," she added at the 43rd Singapore Lecture organised by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
About 700,000 people from the Rohingya Muslim minority have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh since last August following an army crackdown that the United Nations said amounted to "ethnic cleansing".
In her 30-minute speech at the Grand Hyatt hotel, Ms Suu Kyi was reticent about accepting criticism, pointing out that "the outside world can choose the issues on which they wish to focus" and blaming terrorism as the root cause of conflict.
"The danger of terrorist activities, which was the initial cause of events leading to the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine, remains real and present today," she said. "Unless this security challenge is addressed, the risk of inter-communal violence will remain. It is a threat that could have grave consequences not just for Myanmar but also for other countries in our region and beyond."
Addressing destabilising issues in Rakhine state is a fundamental part of building peace and stability in Myanmar, and an essential task on its rocky road of transition from military rule to democracy, she added.
Ms Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy won the 2015 general election by a landslide, noted the government had formed a committee to ensure rule of law and development in Rakhine soon after taking power. It had also approached former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan - who died last Saturday - to head an advisory commission to help find lasting solutions.
Myanmar has implemented 81 out of its 88 recommendations, she said, but "the challenges are multi-faceted and require multi-tasking".
She said Asean and other friends can help it in the implementation of proposals in areas such as strengthening rule of law as well as education and health infrastructure.
As for the resettlement of refugees now in Bangladesh , this has to be effected through the implementation of a pact both sides signed last November, she said.
Ms Suu Kyi said potential resettlement sites have been mapped out, and Myanmar was ready to receive Rohingya returnees since Jan 23.
But Bangladesh will have to decide how quickly it wants the process to be completed, she added.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who chaired the lecture, said there is an urgent need to ameliorate the communal tensions and crisis. "Singapore and the Asean community encourage Myanmar and Bangladesh to press on with their shared commitment to facilitate the voluntary return of displaced refugees in a safe, secure and dignified manner and without delay."
Earlier in the day, Ms Suu Kyi called on President Halimah Yacob and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana. Madam Halimah and Ms Suu Kyi reaffirmed their countries' warm bilateral ties, and discussed the importance of vocational training and equipping youth with skills to help them tap new markets and investment opportunities, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said in a statement.
PM Lee and Ms Suu Kyi's broad-ranging discussion touched on the economic challenges faced by both countries, which are working to conclude a bilateral investment treaty by the end of this year, and the need for greater cooperation in Asean to cope with the rising occurrences of natural disasters due to the effects of global climate change.
Ms Suu Kyi also briefed PM Lee on developments in Myanmar, including economic reforms and its efforts to address the situation in the Rakhine State. PM Lee encouraged Myanmar to continue working closely with Bangladesh, the UN, and the international community to give humanitarian assistance to all affected communities and expedite the repatriation of the refugees in a safe, secure and dignified manner.
He also expressed hope that Myanmar can bring about a long-term solution in Rakhine State, MFA added.