Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was powerless to intervene in the violent military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims last year, disputing a landmark report by the United Nations that placed some responsibility on the Nobel Peace laureate for what it called a genocide.
McConnell’s comments were the latest in a series of actions and statements in support of Suu Kyi by the Kentucky Republican despite widespread international and U.S. condemnation of her leadership in the wake of terrible atrocities in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that sent 700,000 mostly Muslim Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.
Asked about the U.N. report’s singling out of Suu Kyi, who was accused of failing to speak out against unfolding events, spreading “false narratives,” overseeing the destruction of evidence in Rakhine and blocking independent investigations, McConnell said Myanmar, also known as Burma, is not fully under her control.
“She has very limited ability — if any at all — to direct the activities of the military,” McConnell said, citing the Myanmar military’s control of a quarter of the parliament.
As a result, “they cannot change a provision that allows Aung San Suu Kyi to actually be the real leader of the country,” he added.
McConnell’s comments came the same day that the United States put its weight behind the U.N. report, which called for Myanmar’s military officials to face criminal charges of genocide.
At a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said a State Department investigation into the campaign against the Rohingya is “consistent” with the findings in the U.N. report.
Though she did not use the word “genocide,” Haley said one-fifth of more than 1,000 Rohingya Muslims surveyed by the State Department had witnessed more than 100 victims being killed or injured, in what she called a campaign of “ethnic cleansing.” She said 82 percent personally saw at least one person being killed, more than half witnessed some form of sexual violence and 45 percent saw someone raped.
"Most importantly, the report identifies one group as the perpetrator of the overwhelming majority of these crimes: the Burmese military and security forces," she said.
Haley called on the Security Council to hold to account those responsible for the violence, adding, “The whole world is watching what we do next and if we will act."
Earlier, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said the U.N. report’s findings and recommendations deserve “serious consideration.”
The State Department has been urged to declare the military campaign against the Rohingya as genocide, but spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday that determination has not yet been made.
“It is a very specific legal designation,” she said. “It is not one that is easily made. To the average person, of course these things are incredibly horrific and it seems we should just slap a label on something. Well, they’re complex legal designations that have legal meaning and weight in courts around the world.”
McConnell has been especially protective of Suu Kyi since the pair developed close ties during the senator’s more than a quarter-century of promoting human rights and democracy in Myanmar. Senate colleagues have complained that McConnell has blocked efforts in Congress to pass legislation to pressure Myanmar to improve its treatment of the Rohingya.
McConnell’s stance is at odds with other lawmakers in Washington — who have soured on Suu Kyi — in addition to the State Department and the Treasury Department, which imposed sanctions this month on three Myanmar military commanders and a border guard police commander, along with two military units, for their involvement in the “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims.
The U.N. report, issued Monday, called for Myanmar’s military leaders, including the commander in chief, to be investigated and prosecuted on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes over their actions.
“Military necessity would never justify killing indiscriminately, gang raping women, assaulting children, and burning entire villages,” the report said.
Myanmar’s government has said that it rejects the findings of the report.
Shortly after the report was released, even Facebook took the unusual step of removing 18 Facebook accounts, one Instagram account and 52 Facebook pages associated with Myanmar’s military and its leadership. The accounts cumulatively had 12 million followers.
McConnell said Tuesday that “no one doubts that atrocities were committed against the Rohingya” but he added that he was “reluctant to sort of join the pile-on that seeks to blame [Suu Kyi] for things that she couldn’t possibly have had any impact on.”
“The question is, is it responsible to hold her responsible for something she cannot control,” he continued.
Shibani Mahtani contributed to this report.