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Aung San Suu Kyi denies ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Myanmar
Sydney Morning Herald - April 6, 2017
"I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening," Ms Suu Kyi told the BBC, in a rare public interview. She added there was a "lot of hostility" in western Rakhine state, home to more than a million Rohingya.
"It is Muslims killing Muslims, as well, if they think they are collaborating with authorities," the 72-year-old Nobel laureate said.
"It is just not a mater of ethnic cleansing; it is a matter of people on different sides of the divide, and this divide we are trying to close up... as best as possible and not to widen it further."
For months Ms Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy won office at historic elections in late 2015, has been under fire for failing to speak up for the Rohingya, damaging her reputation as a human rights defender.
UN investigators have accused Myanmar security forces of systemic abuses in Rakhine, which the UN says could amount to crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
More than 70,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine for displaced people camps in Bangladesh since October when Myanmar's army launched a brutal crackdown in the state after attacks on several police posts.
Ms Suu Kyi told the BBC that if Rohingya return to Rakhine "they will be safe". But analysts in Myanmar say Ms Suu Kyi, who formally holds the title State Counsellor, holds little sway over the country's powerful military, which controls key security ministries.
She defended the security forces in Rakhine, saying they were engaged in legitimate counterinsurgency operations, adding they are "not free to rape, pillage and torture". "They are free to go in a fight. And of course, that is in the constitution... military matters are to be left to the army," she said.
Myanmar's army has signalled it will not co-operate with a UN investigation into the Rakhine atrocities. The investigation was approved last month by member states of the UN human rights council in Geneva. Australia co-sponsored the move.
The Rohingya have been described by the UN as among the world's most persecuted people. In Rakhine they are denied basic rights such as citizenship and freedom of movement; despite having lived there for generations.
There are signs in Myanmar of growing disillusionment with Ms Suu Kyi – who suffered years of torment and injustice for standing up to the military – although she still draws widespread admiration across the country, one of Asia's poorest.
In by-elections last weekend, the NLD was returned in a string of seats but lost in ethnic minority areas, including Rakhine.
Since her party took office 12 months ago, Ms Suu Kyi has avoided media interviews and has appeared aloof in office, closeted by a small group of advisers.
On March 30 she acknowledged disappointment over the state of her country, saying she was prepared to step down if people ended up dissatisfied with her leadership. "When I joined politics, I said, 'I promise one thing – that I will do my best.' That's all I can do," she said.