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Aung San Suu Kyi’s disappointing speech about Myanmar’s humanitarian catastrophe

400,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees have fled a military crackdown that began at the end of August

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Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a national address in Naypyidaw on September 19, 2017.
YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images

Once championed as a selfless leader for democracy and hailed as her country’s Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto civilian leader of Myanmar, delivered a long-awaited speech Tuesday morning that failed to fully address the crisis engulfing her country.

For the past several weeks, 400,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state to escape the country’s military. The violence was sparked in late August by the killing of 12 Myanmarese border police by a handful of Rohingya insurgents. The reaction of the Myanmar military has been a crackdown of unprecedented proportion, triggering the fastest-growing humanitarian crisis on earth. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report that villages have been burned to the ground, women have been raped, and many have been killed.

In her 30-minute speech, Suu Kyi equivocated. “We want to find out why this exodus is happening,” she said, referring to the mass movement of Rohingya out of Myanmar.

“The security forces have been instructed to adhere strictly to the code of conduct in carrying out security operations, to exercise all due restraint, and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians,” she said, and yet reports collected by humanitarian groups on the Bangladeshi border have described widespread violence and destruction.

Her remarks were delivered in English. It was a choice widely seen as directed toward the international community that has implored her to speak out against the actions of a military engaged in what Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Suu Kyi, beset by criticism, chose not to attend the UN General Assembly in New York this week, instead staying home and addressing the world from Myanmar.

Suu Kyi was once a pop cultural icon of human rights. She became a symbol for the pro-democracy party in Myanmar when she was first placed under house arrest by the ruling military junta in 1989. When given an opportunity to leave the country and join her husband and sons abroad, she remained locked up in Myanmar for a total of 15 years, rather than risk leaving her country and never being allowed to return. She was elected to office in 2015, and her passage to power — even though she shares governing with the military — was hailed as part of a landmark transition to democracy.

But in this morning’s speech, Suu Kyi took a vague approach to Mynamar’s current humanitarian crisis and refused to directly rebuke the military. “We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence,” she intoned to the gathering held in the country’s capital city, Naypyidaw. “We feel deeply for the suffering of all the people caught up in the conflict.”

She described what has widely been reported as indiscriminate violence as the growing pains of a nascent democracy. She told those assembled, “We are a young and fragile country facing many problems, but we have to cope with them all. We cannot just concentrate on the few."

She also maintained that all those in Rakhine state — Buddhist and Muslim alike — have unfettered access to health care and schooling. Many reporters have disproven that statement. Since 1982, when they were stripped of citizenship, the Rohingya have been considered a stateless people denied their basic rights. Fortify Rights, a human rights advocacy group based in Southeast Asia, published a report in 2014 that detailed these abuses, including “restrictions on movement, marriage, childbirth, home repairs and construction of houses of worship, and other aspects of everyday life.”

In the past five years, state-sponsored violent crackdowns on the Rohingya have triggered enormous population displacement. In 2015, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide sent a fact-finding mission to the region. They came back warning that the region was at risk for genocide. And a 2016 military response to a similar insurgent attack on Myanmarese border police (which killed nine officers), sent 74,000 refugees fleeing for Bangladesh, carrying with them stories of rape, murder, and burned villages.

This recent military operation has been even more severe. Almost half the Rohingya have fled for the border. Some 60 percent of the refugees are children.

“In a nut shell, the speech was providing cover for the military,” Azeem Ibrahim, author of The Rohingya: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, wrote me by email.

He noted that Suu Kyi invited independent investigators into the country to investigate the problem. “She wants to know why Rohingya are fleeing to Bangladesh,” he said, in a nod to her statement that “We want to find out why this exodus is happening.”

Ibrahim added, “So either she doesn't know or is simply trying to deceive. Both are very bad.”

The images of Rohingya refugees have shocked the world.

“We are hearing really horrendous stories of people who have survived by the skin of their teeth,” Paolo Lubrano, an Oxfam worker in Cox’s Bazar, a town on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, told me by Skype Friday morning. Lubrano described “dire violence” and an enormous number of very young, and very traumatized, Rohingya refugees. Among those fleeing Myanmar, he added, are many pregnant women who have been walking for three, four, or even five days to find safety.

Rohingya Refugees Flood Into Bangladesh Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images

For weeks, Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel laureates have begged her to condemn the violence. But when she finally spoke this morning, her words came up short.