RANGOON, Burma — In her first major speech on the worsening Rohingya crisis, Burma’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, sidestepped allegations Tuesday of atrocities committed against the stateless Muslim minority and cast the conflict as just one of many problems ailing the country.
Appearing to cast doubt on claims that the military has burned homes, killed civilians and driven families over the border into Bangladesh, Suu Kyi told an audience of diplomats, observers and journalists in the capital, Naypyidaw, that there have been “allegations and counterallegations.”
“There has been much concern around the world with regard to the situation in Rakhine. It is not the intention of the Myanmar government to apportion blame or to abnegate responsibility. We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence,” she said, vowing to look into the abuses but stopping short of identifying perpetrators.
“We feel deeply for the suffering of all the people who have been caught up in the conflict,” she added. Burma is also known as Myanmar.
This was the first time that Suu Kyi has publicly addressed the nation since the crisis began Aug. 25, when insurgents from the newly formed Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked dozens of police posts in the northern part of Rakhine state.
The militants killed at least 12 members of the security forces and triggered a military campaign that has driven more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh.
It also has prompted a torrent of international criticism.
Top U.N. officials have described the campaign as “ethnic cleansing,” and harrowing accounts of atrocities allegedly carried out by Burma’s armed forces have emerged from refugees in camps in Bangladesh with a chilling consistency.
Burma’s government says it is hunting terrorists and has killed hundreds of combatants. It argues that Buddhists and other non-Muslim civilians also have died in the violence.
While acknowledging the suffering and concern, Suu Kyi seemed puzzled as to why some people were leaving, since so many have stayed behind.
“We want to find out why this exodus is happening,” she said, speaking in English and referring to her remarks as a diplomatic briefing. “I think it is very little-known that the great majority of Muslims in Rakhine state have not joined the exodus.”
She avoided the use of the term Rohingya except to refer to the insurgent group. Burma does not recognize the Rohingya, insisting that they are immigrants from Bangladesh despite having lived here for generations.
In a recent interview, Aung Lynn, Burma’s ambassador to the United States, rebutted allegations of ethnic cleansing and, channeling President Trump, pointed to the “false media.”
Pressure has been building on Suu Kyi to speak out against the violence, and she has left many former supporters disappointed by her apparent reluctance to condemn it, leading to calls for her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize to be revoked.
But supporters argue she is preserving her political capital in a primarily Buddhist country of 52 million that does not see Rohingya rights as a top priority and in which many view the more than 1 million Rohingya Muslims as foreign interlopers.
Suu Kyi’s attempt at balance Tuesday may resonate locally with supporters who do not understand the international focus on the plight of the Rohingya.
“We would like you to think of our country as a whole, not just as little afflicted areas,” she said.
She said that since Sept. 5, there have been no more military operations, but satellite photos and smoke rising from burning villages visible across the border in Bangladesh belie the claim.
On Thursday, outside the vast Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, which abuts the border, black smoke was visible in the sky from at least two locations burning on the Burmese side.
The existing camps in Bangladesh are overflowing with refugees, many of whom have set up makeshift shelters of bamboo poles and black plastic sheeting or are squatting by the side of the road.
Chris Lewa, of the Arakan Project activist group, said an analysis of satellite images showed that a large number of villages were burned in the area of Rathedaung township in Rakhine on Sept. 8 and 9, sending an estimated 8,000 Rohingya fleeing toward Bangladesh. Lewa described the burning as “total devastation.”
The stateless minority has been without rights or citizenship for decades. But while waves of migration have occurred before, experts say this is the largest exodus in such a short time . Bangladesh is already home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees.
The influx of refugees has revived long-standing tensions between the two countries. Bangladesh has complained that Burma has been violating its airspace and possibly laying land mines along the border. Officials in Bangladesh also have said the death toll could be in the thousands.
In her speech Tuesday, Suu Kyi made dubious claims about development in Rakhine, saying health-care services were available to everyone without discrimination. That is contrary to the experience of tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have been confined to camps in the central part of the state since communal violence erupted in 2012.
The speech signaled an attempt to reach as broad an audience as possible and was a nod to the international community, which needed no translation to understand her words.
Foreign reaction to the speech was swift and harsh, however. James Gomez, Amnesty International’s regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement that Suu Kyi and her government were “burying their heads in the sand over the horrors unfolding in Rakhine State.”
But it appeared to go over well at home. In a rare attempt at wide distribution, state television and radio channels broadcast the speech domestically, and a live screening of it was held in downtown Rangoon in front of City Hall, attracting a large audience.
Many people attended to show their support, waving signs that said, “We stand together with Mother Suu.”
In the decades-long fight for democracy in Burma, the military was Suu Kyi’s greatest foe, and it still holds considerable power, even though her party won elections in 2015.
But a common foe in Rakhine has made them newfound allies.
“We will stand by Aung San Suu Kyi. We will stand by our government. We will stand by our army,” one sign said.
Cheers went up and red balloons were released into the air over City Hall when Suu Kyi appeared onscreen to speak.
Zaw Win Phyoe, owner of a cellphone shop, said he came out to show support.
“We want to stand with our leader,” he said.
He argued that the issue was about immigration from Bangladesh, not Muslim and Buddhist ties.
“I have Muslim friends, so many Muslim friends, no problem,” he said.
Annie Gowen in New Delhi contributed to this report.