Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday defended her government's actions in Rakhine state, where about 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled from a brutal counterinsurgency campaign to neighboring Bangladesh. She said terrorism, not social discrimination or inequality, triggered the crisis.
Suu Kyi made the comments in a lecture in Singapore in which she reviewed her two years in power.
“We who are living through the transition in Myanmar view it differently than those who observe it from the outside and who will remain untouched by its outcome,” she said, in an apparent response to criticism of how her government has handled the plight of the Rohingya.
Critics accuse Myanmar's army of carrying out ethnic cleaning, or even genocide, against the Muslim minority. Myanmar's population is overwhelmingly Buddhist.
Suu Kyi's government says it carried out justifiable counterinsurgency operations in response to attacks by militants on security forces.
In a measure of the national sensitivity of the subject, Suu Kyi appeared not to refer to the Rohingya by name in her speech. The term is rejected by many Buddhists in Myanmar who do not consider the group a native minority and charge it entered illegally from Bangladesh, although many families have lived for generations in Myanmar. The Rohingya face both social and official discrimination, and are generally denied citizenship.
Suu Kyi, who holds the positions of state counselor and foreign minister, said terrorism was the cause of the crisis in Rakhine and remains a threat.
“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 intercommunal 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.”
The army's crackdown followed attacks last August on security outposts by the secretive Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which said it was acting on behalf of oppressed Rohingya.
Suu Kyi said it was difficult to say when the Rohingya who fled will be able to return to Rakhine state because her nation needs the cooperation of Bangladesh.
She said Myanmar has mapped out general sites for the resettlement of returning Rohingya, but the timing of the repatriation also depends on Bangladesh.
Myanmar's government has signed several agreements on preparing for the return of the Rohingya, but U.N. agencies have accused it of dragging its feet, and human rights groups are concerned that the safety of returning Rohingya cannot be assured.
In its counterinsurgency campaign, the army beat and killed civilians, and organized rapes and the burning of thousands of homes belonging to Rohingya, according to evidence and survivor and witness accounts compiled by human rights organizations.
Suu Kyi's speech was part of a series of annual lectures by global leaders organized by the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies.