NAYPYITAW, Myanmar - For days now, the world awaited Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments on the violence that broke out against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state - however, she remained silent, despite international criticism.
During years of military rule and house arrest, Suu Kyi remained a champion of democracy in the Buddhist-majority country - however, despite widely reported abuses faced by the Rohingya for weeks now, she said very little.
On Tuesday, Suu Kyi finally condemned the human rights violations in Rakhine state and vowed that violators would be punished.
However, throughout her speech, she did not comment on the UN accusations of a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the military.
The Nobel Peace laureate made first remarks to the nation since August 25, when attacks by Rohingya Muslim insurgents sparked a military response that has so far, forced 421,000 Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh.
In her address in the capital, Naypyitaw, Suu Kyi said, “We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence. We are committed to the restoration of peace and stability and rule of law throughout the state. Action will be taken against all people, regardless of their religion, race and political position, who go against the law of the land and violate human rights.”
Several thousand of her supporters cheered, watching her deliver her speech on a big screen and posted messages on social media, saying, “We stand with Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Meanwhile, in New York, in his opening address at the annual UN General Assembly, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, issued a cautious response to Suu Kyi’s speech.
He also repeated a call for authorities to end military operations and allow humanitarian access.
Guterres said, ”I take note of State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi’s address today and their intention to implement the recommendations of the advisory committee for Rakhine state, that was chaired by Kofi Annan, within the shortest time possible.”
He added, “But let me emphasize again, the authorities in Myanmar must end the military operations, allow unhindered humanitarian access and recognize the right of refugees to return in safety and dignity; and they must also address the grievances of the Rohingya, whose status has been left unresolved for far too long.”
Western diplomats and aid officials too welcomed the tone of Suu Kyi’s message.
Some however, doubted if she had done enough to deflect global criticism.
Human rights group Amnesty International described Suu Kyi’s speech as “little more than a mix of untruths and victim-blaming,” saying she and her government were “burying their heads in the sand” for ignoring the army’s role in the violence.
Meanwhile, the United States urged Myanmar to end military operations, grant humanitarian access, and commit to aiding the safe return of civilians to their homes.
While Suu Kyi did not comment on the military or its actions, she merely said there had been “no armed clashes and there have been no clearance operations” since September 5.
Rohingya refugees meanwhile continued to arrive in Bangladesh and last Friday they told the media that soldiers and Buddhist civilians attacked and burnt villages.
Suu Kyi added in her address that she was committed to recommendations made by an advisory team led by former UN secretary-general, Annan.
Last month, the advisory team suggested a review of a law that links citizenship and ethnicity and leaves most Rohingya stateless.
Commenting on the return of refugees, that according to UN Children’s agency estimates includes a quarter of a million children - Suu Kyi said Myanmar was ready to start a verification process and “refugees from this country will be accepted without any problem.”
According to Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, satellite images showed about half of all Rohingya villages had been torched.
Robertson has stressed that it was time that Suu Kyi, the government and military faced the fact that the security forces “shoot and kill who they want” and burn villages.
Further, Amnesty International said there was “overwhelming evidence” the security forces were engaged in ethnic cleansing.
The group pointed out, “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.”
Myanmar, which has rejected the allegation of ethnic cleansing, has argued that its forces are tackling insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which has claimed responsibility for attacks since October.
The government has declared it a terrorist group and accused it of setting the fires and attacking civilians.
Suu Kyi’s role is seen as one of the most critical one by Western Governments that see her as the best hope for Myanmar’s political and economic transition.
However, experts have pointed out that she would have to tread the path carefully as she would have to avoid angering the powerful army and at the same time avoid alienating her supporters by being seen to take the side of a Muslim minority that enjoys little sympathy in the country that has seen a surge of Buddhist nationalism.