NAYPYIDAW, Burma — During the three months that Burma has been rocked by a refugee exodus the United States has now deemed "ethnic cleansing," de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi for the most part has remained hunkered down in her office in this capital city, hewed out of the jungle just over a decade ago by the military regime.
Witnesses have alleged that the military and Buddhist mobs raped women, executed civilians and burned more than 200 villages in a crackdown that followed an attack by Rohingya extremists Aug. 25, causing more than 600,000 Muslim Rohingya to flee into neighboring Bangladesh.
But in interviews here, officials and party leaders close to her not only deny the magnitude of the crisis but that civilian killings and other atrocities took place at all. This, Western observers say, could complicate the staggering task before them — carrying out a deal struck Thursday with Bangladesh to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees, many of them terrified to return to an area where they have clashed violently with their Buddhist neighbors.
On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who visited Burma and met with Suu Kyi and its top general Nov. 15, strongly denounced the "abuses" of the Burmese security forces and local mobs as "ethnic cleansing." Burma also is known as Myanmar.
“No provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities that have ensued,” Tillerson said in a statement. “These abuses by some among the Burmese military, security forces, and local vigilantes have caused tremendous suffering. . . . It is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.”
Suu Kyi’s spokesman said in response that Tillerson’s statement “failed to mention” the killings of Hindus and other “innocent civilians” by Rohingya militants and that conclusions were made “without any proven facts.”
The government has repeatedly asked the United States to support its assertions and has not received any “meaningful” help in response, said Zaw Htay, a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s office. However, he added, the government will work to try to find a “durable solution” to the problem.
In recent days, Suu Kyi’s advisers have denied any atrocities occurred.
“We’ve seen some Muslim people leaving to Bangladesh, and I believe that the main reason they were leaving is because they were afraid to be killed by extremists,” said Win Myat Aye, Burma’s minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement. “The Tatmadaw [Burmese military] did not attack innocent villagers.”
The United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, says she finds Suu Kyi’s position “worrying.”
“It’s one thing for the military to exonerate itself, but when the civilian government denies all this, Myanmar will never know what happened,” she said. “She owes it to all the people, they know the truth.”
In the weeks since the crisis began, Suu Kyi, 72, has gone about her official duties as Burma’s leader with doggedness, seemingly impervious to any threat to her legacy as a Nobel Peace Prize winner once compared to Mohandas Gandhi and the Dalai Lama.
She has been widely condemned for not using her moral authority to speak out on the Rohingya’s plight, and she has been stripped of honors and awards by the international community, which once lionized her. Most recently, the musician and humanitarian Bob Geldof called her “a handmaiden to genocide.”
When she has ventured out — this month helicoptering to the site of the violence in Rakhine state for the first time, for example — she has seemed woefully, or willfully, out of touch, gently chiding both sides not to "quarrel" with each other.
In September, in her first major speech on the crisis, she asserted that military clearance operations had ceased even as smoke from burning villages was still visible in the sky at the Bangladeshi border.
“She has fairly limited sources of information,” said analyst Richard Horsey, stating also that her government is in crisis mode. “They were blindsided by the severity of this and the speed at which it has moved.”
Suu Kyi has regular daily contact with just a handful of advisers — from her National League for Democracy party and a few foreigners. Her relationship with Burma’s generals remains frosty.
“Even her party leadership cannot approach her easily, so she’s a little bit isolated,” said Nyo Nyo Thinn, a former politician who now heads a civil society group. Suu Kyi and her party leaders often complain with exasperation that there are many more problems in Burma that need fixing than just the Muslim refugees, Nyo Nyo Thinn said.
Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest under Burma’s military regime, has been long embraced by Washington politicians on both sides of the aisle, including Hillary Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who even today consider her Burma’s best hope for democracy.
But recent events have strained the goodwill. A bipartisan group of senators led by John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) have sponsored legislation calling for renewed sanctions against Burma’s military in the wake of the violence, and a similar effort is underway in the House.
While McConnell and others still support her publicly, others have been disillusioned by what they see as her callous indifference to the plight of the stateless Rohingya.
“I sense a very distinct lack of empathy for anybody,” said one Obama administration official who spent time with her and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “I found myself wondering whether all those years of separation from her family and the loss of her husband had an impact on her.”
Suu Kyi’s husband, Michael Aris, was fighting prostate cancer and denied a visa while she was under house arrest; she refused to return to Britain for fear the military would not allow her back into Burma. Aris died in 1999 without being able to say goodbye.
Many of her critics have alleged she shares the view of much of her core constituency in Buddhist-majority Burma who consider the Rohingya, who have lived in the country for centuries, to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
“This is the first moment in the last 50 years that everyone without exception in Myanmar is united,” Horsey said. “The military, civilian leaders and the vast majority of the population are all on the same page on this. This isn’t about ethnic cleansing. It’s about, ‘We don’t trust these people. They’re not registered, and they should go back to Bangladesh.’ ”
There were scant details available about the agreement Burma and Bangladesh reached Thursday for the return of the Rohingya. Before the accord was announced, many expressed doubts about returning refugees to Burma.
“Who will be overseeing the return? The security forces that drove them out?” asked Lee, the U.N. human rights rapporteur. There is a danger that they may end up in permanent detention camps rather than returning to their own homes, she said.
But Suu Kyi remains popular in her home country. When Oxford removed her portrait in September and placed it in storage, dozens of copies of the Chen Yanning painting — of a young Suu Kyi with red flowers in her hair — flooded the streets in Burma.
“People really support Aung San Suu Kyi. She suffered a lot. She was arrested in her house for more than a decade — the military repressed her, and she could not see her family. So we feel very sympathetic to her,” Nyo Nyo Thinn said. “Whatever she does, we can forgive her.”