Ten weeks after attacks by militants from the Rohingya ethnic minority in Burma triggered a massive, bloody retaliation by the military, the country's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, finally visited the affected areas.
Nearly 600,000 Rohingya people have fled Burma since Aug. 25, in the most rapid exodus of refugees since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. They live in squalid makeshift tent cities in neighboring Bangladesh, with little prospect of a speedy return. Human rights groups have used satellite images to document the wholesale burning of hundreds of Rohingya villages in Burma, and refugees have carried chilling stories of summary executions and sexual violence.
Suu Kyi visited the Maungdaw region of Rakhine state, which has been hit the hardest. The United Nations calls the military's campaign there “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The Rohingya are mostly Muslim, while the population of Rakhine and Burma at large is mostly Buddhist. Suu Kyi met with religious leaders on her day-long visit, said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a human rights monitor.
“She only said three things to the people — they should live peacefully, the government is there to help them, and they should not quarrel among each other,” Lewa said, quoting information from a religious leader who was present.
Meanwhile, more than 4,000 Rohingya crossed into Bangladesh on Wednesday, according to a Bangladeshi military official quoted by Reuters. Thousands more were said to be waiting on a beach in Maungdaw, desperate for boats to convey them across the estuary that separates the two countries.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has faced criticism from the international community, but few actions have been taken by foreign governments or the United Nations Security Council to intervene in the conflict. Spokesmen for her office, as well as military leaders, have characterized the Rohingya as “Bengalis” or illegal immigrants and urged international observers to understand their campaign as targeting Islamist militants, not civilians. The Muslim presence in Rakhine has been attested to for centuries, and the Rohingya speak a language distinct from Bengali.
Given the divergent narratives, it is perhaps unsurprising that Suu Kyi's trip did not include an acknowledgment of the widespread atrocities documented by human rights groups. From her helicopter, she would have been able to see scores of incinerated villages, but the military has insisted that the Rohingya burned their own villages as they fled. State media has accused the Rohingya of fleeing to tarnish Burma's reputation.
Suu Kyi won national elections in a landslide in 2015, but the military, which controlled Burma for half a century, still wields the power to depose her.
“I hope everything will go fine as local villagers handle the rebuilding process,” Suu Kyi told the residents of Pan Taw Pyin village, according to the New York Times. “We all have to try our best to live peacefully.”