YANGON, MYANMAR —
Aung San Suu Kyi’s first speech on the weeks-old Rohingya crisis was a nationally televised event that many hoped would signal a new direction or perhaps an inspiring attempt to mend the conflict with the power of oratory.
But many observers say the 30-minute address Tuesday did not rise to the occasion, and may have obscured the more serious allegations against the country’s military.
“It’s rather an important time and there were lots of expectations both within the country and abroad, especially abroad, that she will come up with something that can really defuse the current crisis,” said Khin Zaw Win, director of the Yangon-based think tank the Tampadipa Institute.
“Even if she can’t carry it out, you need to come up with a clear and forceful speech. And I just emphasize the term "speech" because that’s what politicians do, and that is what is expected of her. But even the speech, I would say, fell short.”
More than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled northern Rakhine State to Bangladesh, according to aid agency estimates, and Myanmar has had to defend itself against allegations of ethnic cleansing.
The outflow started after members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police posts on August 25, their second strike in less than a year since they emerged in October 2016 as a force willing to carry out deadly operations for Rohingya rights.
In her remarks, Aung San Suu Kyi did not specifically address claims from one side or the other, and appealed to the international community to help Myanmar in a positive way, an allusion to the condemnation that has rained down on her since the crisis started.
The criticism has been a stark contrast to the praise she has traditionally received as an icon of the pro-democracy movement who led her party to election victory in 2015.
“It is a friendly appeal to all those who wish Myanmar well,” she said of her speech, which she delivered in English and referred to as a diplomatic briefing even as it was broadcast on Myanmar state media and in front of City Hall in downtown Yangon, where crowds gathered.
She questioned why so many Rohingya Muslims had left when others were living peacefully in the state, and chastised critics for not giving Myanmar credit for other forms of progress. Observers estimate two-thirds of Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh.
She also lumped Rakhine into other issues facing Myanmar, such as the peace process with ethnic armed groups, which some took as an attempt to minimize the seriousness of the issue.
While she referred to the rule of law and condemned all rights violations, she wound up obscuring the gravity of the claims against the military, presenting what Amnesty International called a “mix of untruths and victim blaming.”
“There is overwhelming evidence that security forces are engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. While it was positive to hear Aung San Suu Kyi condemn human rights violations in Rakhine state, she is still silent about the role of the security forces in this,” James Gomez of Amnesty International said.
Matthew Smith, co-founder of NGO Fortify Rights, described the speech as a "profound disappointment."
"She failed to provide the leadership and guidance needed to end atrocity crimes. She effectively denied what's happening, again," he said in an email.
Nyan Win, a spokesman for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, defended the remarks. He said it was a “good speech” and that she struck a measured tone.
“Because she did not blame to any other person and she tried to do the best things for the Rakhine State situation,” he said.
The stateless Rohingya minority have long been denied basic rights in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which views them as immigrants from Bangladesh. But the situation took a turn for the worse in 2012 when religiously-motivated riots killed hundreds and sent more than 140,000 Rohingya Muslims into IDP camps.
The attacks have stymied Aung San Suu Kyi’s efforts to find solutions in Rakhine, most notably by appointing a commission chaired by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. The commission delivered its final report hours before the August 25 attacks commenced.
Aung Kyaw Moe, a Yangon-based peacebuilding activist, praised the initiatives that Aung San Suu Kyi has taken, such as the commission. But he said he was surprised to hear Aung San Suu Kyi talk about the problem in Rakhine State as one obstacle among many, when to him it's the "most burning issue" in the country.
"The country will not be peaceful if one group or one community is left behind, regardless of their status in the country as indigenous people or citizens of whatever."