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Aung San Suu Kyi Defends Myanmar Military's Response To Rohingya Muslims


Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi gave a long-awaited speech today. It was her first since the violence that began last month which has caused over 400,000 Muslim minority Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Michael Sullivan reports from Bangladesh.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The Nobel laureate who spent nearly 20 years in detention as a guest of Myanmar's military had a chance to speak out against its latest excesses and restore a little faith in her once-shiny reputation as a human rights champion. She passed. In fact she defended the military.


STATE COUNSELLOR AUNG SAN SUU KYI: The security forces have been instructed to adhere strictly to the code of conduct in carrying out security operations, to exercise all due restraint and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians.

SULLIVAN: Myanmar's military isn't known for exercising restraint. Ask some of the other ethnic minorities. And Suu Kyi has no control over the military anyway. The 2008 constitution guarantees it. Nonetheless, she put the blame for the recent violence squarely on the Rohingya militants who carried out the August 25 attacks that prompted the military's brutal crackdown. And then there was this.


SUU KYI: I think it is very little-known that the great majority of Muslims in the Rakhine State have not joined the exodus. More than 50 percent of the villages of Muslims are intact. They are as they were before the attacks took place.

SULLIVAN: So what happened to the other 50 percent? Satellite images collected by Human Rights Watch and others suggest hundreds of villages were torched in what the U.N. calls textbook ethnic cleansing. Suu Kyi declined to address that allegation directly, either. We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence, she said. We feel deeply for the suffering of all the people caught up in the conflict.

PHIL ROBERTSON: Aung San Suu Kyi had a great opportunity today that - and she just didn't take advantage of it.

SULLIVAN: Phil Robertson is deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch reached via Skype. He realizes she's in a bind politically at home with the Rohingya not popular with her voter base. But...

ROBERTSON: Aung San Suu Kyi seems to believe that political survival under the circumstances of ethnic cleansing is preferable to whatever else is on offer.

SULLIVAN: Suu Kyi insisted today that the military's so-called clearance operations have been over for a week now. Yet thousands of Rohingya keep arriving here every day. Dismissing Suu Kyi's speech, one aid worker at one of the refugee camps said this today. If the majority are still in Myanmar, who are all these people? For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 20, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous headline on this story misspelled Aung San Suu Kyi's name as Aung San Suu Kye.
Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.