Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi was poised Tuesday to break her silence on a refugee crisis the UN has decried as “ethnic cleansing”, in a live TV address that will be closely watched by nationalists in Myanmar who support an army-led campaign against Rohingya Muslims.
Communal violence has torn through Rakhine state since August 25, leaving hundreds dead and driving more than 410,000 of the Rohingya minority from Myanmar into Bangladesh.
But Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, has so far refused to speak up for the stateless Rohingya or publically urge restraint from the military.
Her intransigence in the face of huge international pressure has confounded a global community that once feted her as the champion of Myanmar’s democracy struggle.
But inside Myanmar, supporters say the 72-year-old lacks the power to pull in the army, with whom she is in a delicate power-sharing arrangement.
The UN has accused Myanmar’s army of “ethnic cleansing” over a campaign of alleged murder and arson that has left scores of Rohingya villages in ashes.
The army denies that, instead insisting its operations are a proportional response to the late August raids by Rohingya militants, who they label “extremist Bengali terrorists”.
Since then just under half of Rakhine’s Rohingya population has poured into Bangladesh, where they now languish in one of the world’s largest refugee camps.
A further 30,000 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists as well as Hindus have also been displaced — apparent targets of the August 25 attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salavation Army (ARSA) militant group.
Suu Kyi skipped this week’s UN General Assembly in New York to manage the crisis at home and deliver her televised address — the biggest yet of her time in office.
Hours before her speech, British Foreign Secretary called a meeting on the sidelines of the UN gathering, warning that the Rakhine violence was “a stain on the country’s reputation” so soon after its transition to democratic rule.
It was a message that fell on deaf ears among the several hundred people gathered near Yangon’s famous Sule Pagoda early Tuesday to watch the speech on a big screen.
“She will explain to the world the real situation in Rakhine,” Thet Aung Htike, 38, told media agencies.
“Western countries and the UN think that her government is badly treating the Bengali people. But there are a lot of Buddhist and Hindu people who have been killed by the terrorists. The world needs to understand this.”
– Siege mentality –
Analysts say Suu Kyi must walk a treacherous line between global opinion and Islamaphobic anti-Rohingya views at home, where the military has curdled hatred for the Muslim minority.
“I’m worried that there is almost no possibility, given the political climate in Myanmar, for balancing the expectations of most of the country and the expectations of the international community,” said Richard Horsey, an independent analyst based in Myanmar.
While stories of weary and hungry Rohingya civilians streaming into Bangladesh have dominated global headlines, there is little sympathy for the Muslim group among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority.
Many reject the existence of a Rohingya ethnicity and insist they are “Bengalis” — illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
That narrative has justified the denial of citizenship for the estimated one million Rohingya who lived in Rakhine before the recent crisis.
Loathing for the Rohingya has brought the public, including prominent pro-democracy activists, into an unlikely alignment with an army that once had them under its heel.
A seige mentality has emerged in Myanmar with the UN, international NGOs and foreign media the focus of ire for apparent pro-Rohingya bias.
Many Facebook users changed their profile picture on Tuesday to carry a banner with a photo of ‘The Lady’ and saying “We stand with you Daw Aung San Suu Kyi” — using an honorific.
Tensions over the status of the Rohingya have been brewing for years in Myanmar, with bouts of anti-Muslim violence erupting around the country as Buddhist hardliners fan fears of an Islamic takeover.
Although the military stepped down from outright junta rule in 2011, it kept control of security policy and key levers of government.
Any overt break from the army’s policy in Rakhine could enrage the generals and derail Suu Kyi’s efforts to prevent a rollback on recent democratic gains.
Observers say the military may be deliberately destabilising her government with one eye on 2020 elections.
Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing has emerged during the crisis as an unexpectedly popular figure, pitching himself as a defender Myanmar’s territorial integrity and the Buddhist faith.