HANOI, Vietnam – On Wednesday, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's civilian leader, rejected widespread allegations that her country's military had launched ethnic cleansing on Rohingya Muslims. This campaign was so brutal that the UN recommended that the highest commanders be tried for genocide.
"There are, of course, ways in which we might think in retrospect that the situation could have been handled better, but we believe that, in the interests of long-term stability and security, we must do justice to all sides." Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said in a rare appearance at an international forum in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital.
Since August last year, more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled neighboring Bangladesh amid executions, rapes and village burnings in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar. International human rights groups have documented in detail how the Myanmar military organized the bloodshed, which killed at least 10,000 people, according to a United Nations estimate.
But Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi declined to criticize what she called the "military aspect" in her speech at the World Economic Forum on Asean. Instead, she denounced the international community for not focusing on the violence of armed Rohingya militants against members of other ethnic and religious groups in Rakhine.
"We must be fair to the government, even if the rest of the world is not interested," said Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday.
Your government did not say how many non-Rohinyga were killed in Rakhine last year, but numbers from local officials indicate that the total is just over 50.
Military action began after insurgents on Rohingya attacked police and an army station in August 2017, killing about a dozen security forces. For years, the Rohingya have been subjected to widespread persecution by the military of Myanmar, which has driven many into camps and restricted their access to education and health care. Most have been deprived of their citizenship, although Rakhine is their home.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a former dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner who became Myanmar's de facto civilian leader after her party flooded the 2015 elections, was harshly criticized for failing to stop or even acknowledge the atrocities against the Rohingya. Various international awards she received for her commitment to non-violent democratic resistance were lifted.
But she remains popular at home, where the minority of Rohingya Muslims is widely reviled among the mostly Buddhist population.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi rarely accepts questions from the public about the Rohingya crisis. She will not attend the UN General Assembly this month, an event she also skipped last year as outrage over the Rohingya exodus.
At the event in Hanoi, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi admitted that her civilian government must be held responsible for everything that happened in Myanmar, even though the military still controls the top cabinet posts and a quarter of parliamentary seats.
"Although we have only 75 percent of power, we have 100 percent of the responsibility," she said. "That's what the elected government is about."
The military, which ruled Myanmar for nearly 50 years and still share power with the civilian authorities, kept Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for more than 15 years before being released in 2010.
On Thursday she also turned to the Seven-year sentences this month from a court in Myanmar imposed on Reuters reporters who uncovered a massacre of Rohingya in a Rakhine village. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said the reporters' crime was not journalism, but violated Myanmar's official colonial-era secret service law, and she accused critics of not "having read" the summary of the verdict.
"If someone feels there was a miscarriage of justice, I want them to point that out," she said.
Vice President Mike Pence appealed to reporters U Wa Lone and U Kyaw Soe Oo to be released and added his voice to a chorus of international condemnation of the conviction.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said on Thursday that she has formed commissions – at least half a dozen, to this day – to look into the overall situation in Rakhine State. International members of one of these commissions – including Bill Richardson, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, quit this year in protest and said they did not want to attend a whitewash.
Although Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement last year to send the volunteer Rohingya back to Rakhine, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi accused Bangladesh of obstructing the trial she allegedly started in January. "At the time, Bangladesh said they were not quite ready," she said. "We can not get her out of Bangladesh."
In the camps in Bangladesh, which are the largest single refugee settlement in the world, some Rohingya have refused to return to the battlefield of the Burmese and Myanmar military in Myanmar.
"It's wet and uncomfortable here," said Noor Farooq, a former shopkeeper in Rakhine, on Thursday when monsoon rains threatened to wash away more refugee shelters built on recently exposed hills in eastern Bangladesh. "I miss my home, but at least I'm safer here than in Rakhine."
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi gave her talk in Hanoi in a room that was barely half full. It was a striking departure from her first appearance at the World Economic Forum in 2012 when she traveled to Bangkok for almost a quarter of a century to make her first overseas trip. Freed from long years of house arrest, she was bullied in Thailand like a rock star, and given military excesses as a model of moral authority.