NEW DELHI — Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi said this week that it will “take time” to address her country’s ongoing humanitarian crisis and deflected charges that she has not done enough to speak out on behalf of Burma’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim community.
Suu Kyi spoke to The Washington Post as her administration marks six months in office, and as fresh violence threatens to derail the country’s peace process.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate and dedicated critic of the former military government came to power at a time when she must deal with a worsening humanitarian crisis that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
The crisis deepened this month when assailants thought to be part of the Rohingya community attacked three police posts in the western part of the country, killing nine police officers. Scores of people were killed and villages torched in a military crackdown that followed.
Suu Kyi said Tuesday that video of the alleged attackers shows “clearly” that their intentions were to wage jihad and that they had exhorted their brothers from the Muslim world to join them.
“We are of course determined to contain the situation and to make sure that we restore peace and harmony as soon as possible,” Suu Kyi said. “We are not going to allow either the security or stability or the integrity of our country to be threatened.”
Suu Kyi’s government came to power in March after the country’s first election following decades of military rule. She said continuing the peace process with ethnic militias fighting in the country’s north and east was her top priority.
But her civilian government must find ways to work with the still-powerful military and take steps to rejuvenate an economy that faltered during decades of brutal military rule. Burma, also known as Myanmar, remains one of the poorest countries in Asia.
In August, Suu Kyi appointed former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan to look into the situation with the Rohingya. More than 1 million Rohingya Muslims live in Burma, but they are considered stateless and have long been denied basic rights.
More than 120,000 are still living in fetid camps in Rakhine state after violent clashes with their Buddhist neighbors in 2012. They have little access to health care and 30,000 of their children do not have proper schools, according to a U.N. report in June.
The report cited a “pattern of gross human rights violations” against the Rohingya, acts that it said could rise to the level of “crimes against humanity” in a court of law.
The government restarted a process of citizenship verification for the Rohingya in June, but many of the Rohingya refused to participate, Suu Kyi said. Human rights activists say they were suspicious that some kind of new card would mean a further erosion of their rights.
“Things take time,” she said. “The situation in the Rakhine is a legacy of many, many decades of problems. It is not something that happened overnight. We’re not going to be able to resolve it overnight. It goes back even to the last century.”
Suu Kyi told the U.N. investigator that the government would avoid using the term “Rohingya,” which many Burmese consider incendiary. Many Burmese call the Rohingya “Bengali,” a reference to the fact that some migrated from Bangladesh years earlier.
“This is inflammatory,” Suu Kyi said. “We simply say Muslims of Rakhine state. Because this is just a factual description which nobody should object to. But of course, everybody objects because they want their old emotive terms to be used.”
Suu Kyi brushed aside the frequent criticism that, as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, she has not done enough to speak out about the Rohingyas’ plight. She did not go near the camps on a campaign swing through the state last fall and spoke of the conflict only in the vaguest terms.
“Well, I have spoken about it, but people don’t like the way I talk about it because I don’t take sides,” she said. “Nobody takes any account of that because that is not what they want to hear. They want me to make, you know, incendiary remarks, which I am not going to do. I’ve made it very clear that our work is not to condemn but to achieve reconciliation.”
Richard Horsey, a longtime Burma analyst and adviser to the International Crisis Group, said that Suu Kyi had made strides in addressing the issue after her government took over, including the appointment of Annan. But the spate of violence may change that, he said.
“These recent attacks have completely changed the landscape here and what’s possible to do right now,” Horsey said. “It has a huge potential to make the situation much, much worse and much harder to fix.”
Suu Kyi, whose official title is state counselor, spoke at Burma’s embassy while on a trip to India this week. The country is familiar terrain for her, as she spent part of her high school and college years living in New Delhi while her mother was ambassador here.
Suu Kyi, now 71, spent decades campaigning against the military dictatorship in her country, including a total of more than 15 years under house arrest. For her efforts, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
She was freed in 2010 shortly before the military generals began economic reforms that were supported by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration.
Despite the resounding victory of her National League for Democracy in last November’s elections, Burma’s generals retain a tight grip on power, reserving 25 percent of the seats in the country’s parliament, which gives them veto power over any constitutional amendment. The military also appoints the key ministers in home affairs, border affairs and defense.
“Tacitly neither will challenge the other much,” Horsey said. “She’s not challenging the military on security issues and not pushing for changes in the constitution, and they’re not showing signs of actively undermining her civilian government.”
When Suu Kyi visited Washington and met with President Obama last month, he announced that he would remove remaining economic sanctions on the country.
They include a longtime ban on imports of gems from the country’s jade and ruby mines and a list of individuals and companies barred from doing business with U.S. entities. This final move should spur foreign investment from the United States, which remains a fraction of the estimated $9 billion in foreign investment in the country this year, experts said.
“We’ve depended on sanctions long enough,” Suu Kyi said. “Sanctions were put into place at a time we most needed a little leverage. I think it’s time that we moved on to a different phase.”