Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi denied Wednesday that ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people is underway, despite a damning U.N. report that the country’s military forces in Rakhine State are committing mass gang-rape and slaughtering babies.
“I don’t think there is ethnic cleansing going on,” she told the BBC. “I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening.”
The Nobel Peace Prize winner has faced regular criticism from the international community and fellow Nobel winners for her failure to address the atrocities unfolding in the region, which has seen 75,000 Rohingya cross the border to Bangladesh in the last six months alone.
Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK, told VICE News that Myanmar’s de facto leader was “complicit” in what was happening. “She should speak up [for the Rohingya]; otherwise, if she sides with the military, the Rohingya people will suffer much more, we will be wiped out very soon,” Khin said.
“We’ve consistently documented rape, including gang rapes, killings, and other violence on a massive scale, and frankly we’re worried the worst has yet to come.”
In February a U.N. report detailed the military’s “devastating cruelty” and “widespread violations against the Rohingya population,” with the U.N. high commissioner for human rights Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid calling on the international community to act.
“The gravity and scale of these allegations begs the robust reaction of the international community,” Zeid wrote at the time.
Matthew Smith, CEO of the Fortify Rights charity, speaking from Yangon, Myanmar, said that while the military may be directly responsible for the atrocities, Suu Kyi’s “behavior at this point borders on complicity.”
“She’s obviously unwilling to do the difficult work to end atrocity,” Smith added. “We’ve consistently documented rape, including gang rapes, killings, and other violence on a massive scale, and frankly we’re worried the worst has yet to come.”
Suu Kyi’s lack of action on the issue threatens to overshadow her record as a human rights champion during her decadeslong battle against the military junta in Burma, which earned her the Nobel. She has failed to visit the area since violence erupted in October, when the military launched an offensive to find Rohingya militants who raided police border posts, killing nine policemen.
“I think there is a lot of hostility there — it is Muslims killing Muslims as well, if they think they are co-operating with the authorities,” Suu Kyi said. “It is not just a matter of ethnic cleansing as you put it — it is a matter of people on different sides of the divide, and this divide we are trying to close up.”
The Myanmar leader denied that the military had free reign in Rakhine. “They are not free to rape, pillage, and torture. They are free to go in and fight. That is in the constitution. Military matters are to be left to the army.”
According to Khin, “the military is controlling everything” in Myanmar. He described the army’s commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, as a “superpower” because he is the person who can order the withdrawal of the forces from Rakhine state. “Aung San Suu Kyi cannot do this,” he added.
Still, the Myanmar leader’s failure to condemn the offensive in Rakhine has emboldened the military, and could lead to further atrocities, Khin said, adding that Suu Kiy’s comments will “encourage more impunity.”
In March the United Nations human rights council announced plans to open an investigation into the mounting allegations of human rights abuses by Myanmar’s army. But Suu Kyi has thus far prevented all independent observers from entering the region.
Analysts warn that a failure to address the human rights issues in the Rakhine state will only play into the hands of extremists groups, which continue to grow influence in the oppressed region.
Last week, the leader of the Rohingya Muslim insurgency group that killed the border police in October, Ata Ullah, said his group would keep fighting “even if a million die” unless Suu Kyi took action to protect the religious minority. “If we don’t get our rights, if 1 million, 1.5 million, all Rohingya need to die, we will die. We will take our rights. We will fight with the cruel military government,” Ullah told Reuters.
The Rohingya were rendered stateless in 1982 when their right to Burmese citizenship was withdrawn. In the ensuing decades they have become among the world’s most persecuted minorities with severe restrictions placed on their movement, marriage, education and religious freedom.