With a mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims sparking accusations of ethnic cleansing from the United Nations and others, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday said her country does not fear international scrutiny and invited diplomats to see some areas for themselves.
Though an estimated 421,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in less than a month as their villages burned and hundreds were killed, Suu Kyi said the "great majority" of Muslims within the conflict zone stayed and that "more than 50 per cent of their villages were intact."
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate's global image has been damaged by violence since Rohingya insurgents attacked Myanmar security forces on Aug. 25. Rohingya fled their villages in the military crackdown that followed, and many of their villages have been burned. The government has blamed the Rohingya themselves, but members of the persecuted minority have said soldiers and Buddhist mobs attacked them.
And they are still leaving, piling into wooden boats that take them to sprawling, monsoon-drenched refugee camps in Bangladesh.
"This is the worst crisis in Rohingya history," said Chris Lewa, founder of the Arakan Project, which works to improve conditions for the ethnic minority, citing the monumental size and speed of the exodus.
"Security forces have been burning villages one by one, in a very systematic way. And it's still ongoing."
Though members of the long-persecuted religious minority first arrived in the western state of Rakhine generations ago, most people in Myanmar, also called Burma, consider them to have migrated illegally from Bangladesh. Denied citizenship, they are effectively stateless. They cannot travel freely, practise their religion, or work as teachers or doctors, and they have little access to medical care, food or education.
Suu Kyi's first address to the nation since the violence erupted came days after she cancelled plans to attend the UN General Assembly, a decision widely seen as a response to international criticism. She insisted anyone found to have broken the law would be punished.
"Human rights violations and all other acts that impair stability and harmony and undermine the rule of law will be addressed in accordance with strict laws and justice," she said.
Access to Rohingya villages
Satellite imagery released by Human Rights Watch on Tuesday shows massive swaths of scorched landscape and the near total destruction of 214 villages.
Suu Kyi sought to assure foreign diplomats gathered for her speech in Naypyitaw, the capital, that those who fled to Bangladesh would be allowed to return if they passed a "verification" process.
The Myanmar crisis is very reminiscent of what happened in Bosnia in 1995 and in Rwanda in 1994. - Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari
Though fires have continued to flare in recent days in northern Rakhine state, she said "there have been no armed clashes and there have been no clearance operations" for the past two weeks.
"Nevertheless we are concerned to hear that numbers of Muslims are fleeing across the border to Bangladesh," she said. "We want to understand why this exodus is happening. We would like to talk to those who have fled as well as those who have stayed."
She also invited the diplomats to visit villages that weren't affected so they could learn along with the government "why are they not at each other's throats in these particular areas."
Rohingya now in camps in Bangladesh were angered by the implication that Rohingya who were driven from their villages were themselves responsible, or that some members of the ethnic group are safe.
Rohingya feel betrayed
In the Kutupalong refugee camp, Abdul Hafiz said Rohingya once trusted Suu Kyi more than the military that not only ruled for half a century before, but also held her under house arrest for many years. Now Hafiz calls Suu Kyi a "liar" and said Rohingya are suffering more than ever.
He said Suu Kyi should give international journalists more access to their destroyed villages. If Rohingya are proven wrong that they were attacked, he said, "we will not mind if the world decides to kill us all by pushing us into the sea."
Lewa said the government rules for verifying Rohingya as citizens are too strict, requiring documents dating back decades.
"Many people would have lost their documents in the fires, and many children were already unregistered," she said.
Those fires, she added, have destroyed thousands of homes.
"So where are they going to go?" I hope not in segregated camps, as in Sittwe," a Rakhine state city where tens of thousands of Rohingya have been confined since another round of violence five years ago.
Support from Russia, China
Russian and Chinese diplomats praised the speech.
"The message is quite clear that Myanmar is ready to co-operate with the international community," said the Russian ambassador to Myanmar, Nikolay Listopadov.
Rights groups were far more critical. Amnesty International regional director James Gomez accused Suu Kyi of "a mix of untruths and victim-blaming."
"There is overwhelming evidence that security forces are engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing," Gomez said.
"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."
Echoes of Bosnia, Rwanda
Meanwhile, speaking to the UN General Assembly Tuesday morning, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari likened the violence in Myanmar to genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, urging a halt to the "ongoing ethnic cleansing" and safe return of refugees.
"The Myanmar crisis is very reminiscent of what happened in Bosnia in 1995 and in Rwanda in 1994," Buhari told the annual gathering of world leaders.
He added that the "horrendous suffering" had been caused by "state-backed program of brutal depopulation of the Rohingya inhabited areas in Myanmar on the bases of ethnicity and religion."