Myanmar’s handling of the crisis in northern Rakhine State, which saw more than 700,000 Muslims flee to Bangladesh amid a brutal military crackdown, could have been better, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said Thursday.
Myanmar is facing international pressure over atrocities allegedly committed by the Tatmadaw (military) in the crackdown that followed deadly attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on government security outposts in August 2017. The military was accused of committing mass rape, killings and setting fire to thousands of homes. A report issued two weeks ago by a specially appointed UN human rights team recommended prosecuting senior Myanmar commanders for genocide and other crimes.
“There are of course ways in which with hindsight I think the situation could have been handled better,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said, responding to questions during a one-on-one discussion at the World Economic Forum’s regional meeting in Hanoi.
She still defended Myanmar security forces, saying that all groups in Rakhine had to be protected.
“We have to be fair to all sides,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said. “The rule of law must apply to everyone. We cannot choose and pick.”
She said the situation was complicated by the myriad ethnic minorities in the state, some of whom are at risk of disappearing entirely, and which include not just the Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists.
Although the violence in Rakhine has eased, Myanmar has to deal with its aftermath, especially the repatriation of the Muslims from northern Rakhine who fled and the underlying causes of tension that made them targets of discrimination and repression in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said that Myanmar is prepared to take back those who fled, but their return has been complicated by the fact that two governments are involved.
Aid workers say conditions for a safe and orderly return of the refugees have not been met.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also rejected criticism over the show-trial conviction last week of two Reuters news agency reporters who helped expose extrajudicial killings of 10 men and boys suspected of being ARSA fighters by soldiers.
The reporters were both sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of possessing state secrets.
US Vice President Mike Pence is among those who have condemned the verdicts and called for the journalists’ release.
“The case has been held in open court,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said. “If anyone feels there has been a miscarriage of justice, I would like them to point it out.”
“They were not jailed because they were journalists. They were jailed because … the court has decided they have broken the Official Secrets Act,” she said.
She noted that the two can appeal their sentences.
But Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the State Counsellor “got it all wrong” on the journalists’ case.
“(Daw) Aung San Suu Kyi once again got it all wrong when she spoke about the Reuters journalist verdict in Hanoi. She fails to understand that real ‘rule of law’ means respect for evidence presented in court, actions brought based on clearly defined and proportionate laws, and independence of the judiciary from influence by the government or security forces,” he said. “On all these counts, the trial of the Reuters journalists failed the test.”
On Wednesday, a local foundation supporting political prisoners in the country included the two journalists among 10 people it awarded financial assistance.
The Hanthawady U Tin Win Foundation, which was established in 2014 by journalist and political activist U Tin Win, included Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo on its list of political prisoners.