Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi broke her silence on Rakhine state violence Thursday, calling for the return of refugees from Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi called for national unity in addressing the problem of violence in Rakhine and other regions in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, as well as the safe return of “those who are now in Bangladesh” in a Thursday televised address, according to the Associated Press. Suu Kyi also said she created a committee, Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine, that will oversee all foreign and local assistance in the development of Rakhine state and the return of the refugees.
Suu Kyi had not spoken out about the violence that began in 2016, or evidenced any action toward resolving the issue before her Thursday address, and she even canceled her attendance at a United Nations meeting in September amid growing criticism over her lack of outcry against the Burmese army’s atrocities against the Rohingya.
The extent of Suu Kyi’s actual power relative to that of Burma’s military leaders is small, however, as Burma’s current constitution, written by the previous military regime, severely limits the power of Suu Kyi’s position and guarantees the military one-fourth of the seats in parliament, according to the BBC.
Dave Eubank, who has spent the last 24 years in Burma and founded the Free Burma Rangers, said that despite Suu Kyi’s victory in Burma’s 2015 democratic elections, she and her party are powerless to do anything Burma’s military leaders do not permit them to do.
“What’s really important in this story is that the army never relinquished control,” Eubank told The Daily Caller News Foundation in a prior interview. “So even though the army leaders stepped down and changed into civilian clothes, they maintained control by rewriting the constitution, which guarantees military power but also de facto control. So Aung Saan Su Kyi and the National League for Democracy can’t do anything the army doesn’t let them do.”
Given the nature of Suu Kyi’s position and the military’s control thereof, the effectiveness of her new committee and her call for the safe return of Rohingya refugees remains to be seen. Suu Kyi did not specifically mention the Rohingya by name, perhaps to avoid either a slight against the military or the ire of Buddhist nationalists, but referenced them in her call for the return of refugees from Bangladesh, as the Burmese army has systematically driven more than 500,000 Rohingya out of the country into overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh. (RELATED: The World’s Longest Running Civil War Has No End In Sight)
Suu Kyi’s Thursday acknowledgement of the Rakhine violence and ensuing refugee crisis contrasted sharply with the Thursday comments of Burma’s ambassador to Japan, Thurain Thant Zin, who claimed that allegations of atrocities committed against the Rohingya by Burmese security forces were false. Her comments also clashed with those of Burmese Military commander-in-chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who denied that a large number of Rohingya had fled to Bangladesh.
Why Suu Kyi waited until now to speak out about the Rakhine crisis, and the extent to which the military exerted control, if any, in her actions and decisions on the matter of the Rohingya is unclear. The state counsellor said in her speech that those returning to the Rakhine state would need to be resettled, and that Rakhine needed to be developed. She has invited U.N. agencies, financial institutions, and other aid groups to help in the development of the region, but provided no details in the Thursday address as to the plans for refugee return, resettlement, or development.
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