Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, will be a no-show at next week’s U.N. General Assembly, amid mounting international criticism of her failure to prevent the devastating violence being carried against the country’s Rohingya minority.
Suu Kyi’s office said Wednesday that the leader would miss the assembly, which begins Tuesday, as she deals with the crisis in Rakhine state that has forced about 400,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee across the border to Bangladesh in recent weeks. The ongoing crisis, which senior U.N. officials say could create a broader regional crisis, is expected to be high on the General Assembly’s agenda.
“She is trying to control the security situation, to have internal peace and stability, and to prevent the spread of communal conflict,” said Zaw Htay, spokesman for Suu Kyi’s office. Government spokesman Aung Shin told Reuters that the leader had “more pressing matters to deal with,” but stressed that she was “never afraid of facing criticism or confronting problems.”
The human rights icon’s legacy has been tarnished over her failure to halt the brutal military offensive in Rakhine state, which the U.N. human rights chief has described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” There have been calls for her to be stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize, and fellow Nobel laureates including the Dalai Lama, Malala Yousafzai, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have personally appealed for a halt to the violence.
The longstanding tensions in Rakhine state flared up again last month when a recently-formed Rohingya insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, launched a series of attacks on security posts. Myanmar’s military responded with a brutal and indiscriminate counter-offensive that rights groups and refugees report has resulted in mass killings, rapes, and villages being torched, all in an apparent campaign to drive the one million-strong Muslim minority from predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.
Western and Muslim countries have condemned the military campaign, and terror groups such as al Qaeda have issued statements in support of the Rohingya. “The savage treatment meted out to our Muslim brothers … shall not pass without punishment,” al Qaeda said in a statement. Other countries such as China and India have said they support Myanmar’s efforts to maintain security.
Even Suu Kyi’s critics acknowledge she is in a complicated position given the country’s delicate political arrangements as it transitions from a military dictatorship to democracy. Myanmar’s military, which ruled for nearly five decades until 2011, retains full control of security affairs and significant political powers – including a quarter of seats in Parliament. There’s little public support for the Rohingya across Myanmar, which has been swept by a wave of Buddhist nationalism since the end of the military junta.
But it’s widely acknowledged that Suu Kyi – who spent nearly 15 years under house arrest for her pro-democracy activism and is universally revered in Myanmar – could use some of her immense political capital to speak out against the violence, even if it proved unpopular.
In her first appearance at the U.N. General Assembly as Myanmar’s leader in September 2016, Suu Kyi defended her government’s treatment of the Rohingya and its efforts to defuse longstanding tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine.