Tuesday 17 September 2019

Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi rebuffs criticism over treatment of Rohingya Muslims

Criticised: Aung San Suu Kyi. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo)
Criticised: Aung San Suu Kyi. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo)

Bernat Armangue

Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi has rebuffed criticism from US vice president Mike Pence and other leaders over her government's treatment of its ethnic Rohingya Muslims.

In a meeting on the sidelines of a regional summit in Singapore, Mr Pence told Ms Suu Kyi that he was anxious to hear about progress in resolving the crisis, which stems from a violent military crackdown in Burma's northern Rakhine state which the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing.

"The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse," Mr Pence said.

He added that he was keen to hear how Burma will enable the Rohingya to voluntarily return home, adding that Burma's arrest and conviction of two Reuters journalists was "deeply troubling" to millions of Americans.

"I look forward to speaking with you about the premium that we place on a free and independent press," he said.

The pair met during the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore. Mr Pence is attending that and the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Papua New Guinea later this week in President Donald Trump's stead.

On Tuesday Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamed made an unusually harsh public criticism of Ms Suu Kyi, saying that as a former political prisoner she should better understand suffering. He said the treatment of the Rohingya was "indefensible".

Ms Suu Kyi became a figurehead for democracy after spending about 15 years under house arrest for opposing Burma's earlier military dictatorship.

Although she has been the de facto head of Burma's civilian government since her party swept elections in 2015, she is limited in her control of the country by a constitution written under the former military junta.

The military is in charge of security operations, including those in northern Rakhine.

But she has faced widespread criticism for not speaking out in defence of the Rohingya. Amnesty International became the latest organisation to strip her of an award this week, citing the "shameful betrayal of the values she once stood for".

Responding to Mr Pence, she said it was good to exchange views, but added: "We understand our country better than any other country does. I'm sure you will say the same of yours, that you understand your own country better than anybody else.

"So we are in a better position to explain to you what is happening, how we see things panning out."

Burma's government and most of the nation's Buddhist majority claim the members of the Muslim minority are Bengalis who migrated illegally from Bangladesh, and do not acknowledge the Rohingya as a local ethnic group even though they have lived in Burma for generations.

UN officials have urged Bangladesh to move cautiously on plans to repatriate more than 2,200 of the Rohingya refugees to Burma, saying such a move would endanger their lives.

The office of UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said it is still receiving reports of rights violations in Rakhine state, "which include allegations of killings, disappearances and arbitrary arrests".

It said 130,000 people, including many Rohingya, remain internally displaced in central Rakhine.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR has also advised against the returns, saying safety should be assessed first, but it did not call for a halt to the repatriation plans.

PA Media

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