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Myanmar's Suu Kyi denies ethnic cleansing

April 6, 2017

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing against the Muslim minority Rohingya communities. Suu Kyi said it was "too strong an expression" for what was happening.

Bangladesch - Rohingya-Konflikt
Image: Getty Images/A. Joyce

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has denied  ethnic cleansing of the country's Rohingya Muslims, despite the UN and human rights organizations saying that the army's conduct may amount to war crimes.

"I don't think there is ethnic cleansing going on. I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening," Suu Kyi told the BBC in an interview on Wednesday.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner has faced international criticism for the country's treatment of its one million Rohingya minority community. Most are considered illegal immigrants and face discrimination despite having lived in the country for decades in Rakhine state. 

Karte Myanmar Rakhine State ENG
Rakhine borders Bangladesh to the north

Attacks on border guard posts in October by a previously unknown Rohingya insurgent group killed nine soldiers. This prompted a brutal army crackdown that sent more than 75,000 Rohingya people fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh.

Suu Kyi said that those who had fled were welcome to return. "If they come back they will be safe," she said.

She said the October's attacks were "totally unexpected" and had been carried out for "no reason we could think of." They came as the government was preparing to address development and citizenship issues, she added.

Human rights reports

The UN human rights council in a report earlier this year accused Myanmar's army of mass killings, gang rape, torture and burning villages as part of a vicious counter-insurgency campaign. 

Suu Kyi said in the interview that the army was "not free to rape, pillage and torture."

"They are free to go in and fight. And of course, that is in the constitution... Military matters are to be left to the army," she said.

“I think there’s a lot of hostility there,” she told the BBC. “It’s Muslims killing Muslims as well, if they think that they are collaborating with authorities … It’s a matter of people on different sides of a divide.”

Bangladesch - Rohingya-Konflikt
Rohingya communities have been forced to flee to BangladeshImage: picture alliance/NurPhoto/S. Nandy

Government reform program

Suu Kyi's one-year-old government swept to power in elections following five decades of military rule, but she is limited by the army-imposed constitution and its control over key ministries. In the interview, she said she aimed to amend the constitution.

The initial euphoria of Suu Kyi's election victory has since met with some disillusionment, as there has been little progress in implementing democratic reforms, boosting the economy or ending ethnic insurgencies.

Suu Kyi defended her administration's attempts at reforms, including a citizenship verification process that would address the Rohingya people's status.

Suu Kyi said there was "a lot of hostility" in Rakhine between Buddhists and Muslims and the government was trying to heal tensions.

FILE PHOTO: Myanmar's National League for Democracy Party leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a news conference in Yangon
Aung San Suu KyiImage: Reuters/J. Silva


Myanmar has launched its own investigation into possible crimes in Rahkine and invited former UN chief Kofi Annan to head a commission to look into communal tensions between Buddhists and Muslims.  But it has refused UN calls for an independent international body to look into rights violations.

Ethnic clashes in 2012 between Rohingya and Buddhists in Rakhine state left more than 100 people dead and 140,000 internally displaced. 

cw/jm (AFP, Reuters)

Stateless Rohingya struggle in Bangladesh