Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi finally broke her silence on the violence against the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority Tuesday. But it wasn’t the response the world was waiting for.
Rather than condemning the brutal military campaign in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which has led to reports of mass killings and sent nearly 150,000 of Rohingya fleeing across the border to Bangladesh in the past two weeks alone, Suu Kyi blamed “terrorists” for disseminating “a huge iceberg of misinformation.”
According to an account of her phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, given on her office’s official Facebook page, Suu Kyi said her government had “already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible.”
She also said misinformation was being disseminated that was “calculated to create a lot of problems between different countries… with the aim of promoting the interests of the terrorists.” She was likely referencing images of killings that Turkey’s deputy prime minister had circulated on Twitter but later deleted because they were from another conflict.
But the latest wave of military violence against the Muslim minority can’t simply be chalked up to fake news. Myanmar’s military response to deadly attacks on security forces by a Rohingya insurgent group on August 25 is well-documented and has drawn widespread international condemnation.
On Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Myanmar to stop the military campaign, which he said could destabilize the region, and had created a risk of ethnic cleansing.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate who once spent nearly 15 years under house arrest after winning a presidential election the ruling military junta refused to accept, has faced widespread criticism and condemnation for her failure to intervene in the Rakhine crisis.
Erdogan, along with the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan, has been one of the leading voices calling for an end to the persecution of the Rohingya, as anger grows over the situation in Rakhine, particularly throughout the Muslim world. There have been large protests in support of the Rohingya in capitals from Grozny, Chechnya to Jakarta in Indonesia.
But Suu Kyi received some cover when she met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Myanmar Wednesday. Modi, whose government has taken a hardline on India’s Muslim population as well as incoming Rohingya refugees, expressed concern over “extremist violence” and “violence against security forces” in Rakhine, but omitted any mention of the Rohingya’s plight.
The Rohingya,a Muslim minority of about 1.1 million people widely viewed as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, are denied citizenship by predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, which views them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Since a previous outbreak of communal violence in 2012, more than 100,000 have been forced to live in dire conditions in internally-displaced persons camps, and hundreds of thousands have made perilous journeys by sea and land in their bid to flee persecution.
A U.N. report released in February documented widespread abuses by Myanmar’s military including the murder and torture of children as young as eight months old, pointing to a “very likely commission of crimes against humanity,” while another by Human Rights Watch documented systematic rape of Rohingya women by security forces.
The growing humanitarian catastrophe prompted one relief charity focused on helping migrants in the Mediterranean, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station Foundation, to announce Tuesday it was relocating to Myanmar to help refugees there.