Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, said ethnic cleansing was too strong a term to describe what was happening in the Muslim-majority Rakhine region, the BBC reported on Wednesday.
“I don’t think there is ethnic cleaning going on,” Suu Kyi told the BBC. “I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening.“
The Nobel peace prize winner is facing international criticism for her government’s handling of a crisis in the Muslim-majority Rakhine region, where soldiers have blocked access for aid workers and are accused of raping and killing civilians.
Critics have called on Aung San Suu Kyi, who after 15 years of house arrest as a political prisoner now effectively rules Myanmar in the specially created position of state counsellor, to speak out against the abuses.
But she told the BBC: “What do you mean by speaking out? … This question has been asked since 2013 when the last round of troubles broke out in Rakhine. And they would ask me questions and I would answer them, and people would say I said nothing. Simply because I didn’t make a kind of statement which they thought I should make, which is to condemn one community or the other.”
In December, more than a dozen fellow Nobel laureates wrote an open letter to the UN security council warning of a tragedy “amounting to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” in Rakhine, citing the “potential for genocide”.
Aung San Suu Kyi said she was working towards reconciliation in the troubled area, but in comments that are likely to draw further criticism, declined to accept that aggressions were being perpetuated by the Burmese army.
“I think there’s a lot of hostility there,” she told the BBC. “It’s Muslims killing Muslims as well, if they think that they are collaborating with authorities … It’s a matter of people on different sides of a divide.”
Myanmar has launched its own domestic probe into possible crimes in Rahkine and appointed former UN chief Kofi Annan to head a commission tasked with healing long-simmering divisions between Buddhists and Muslims.
Aung San Suu Kyi said the army was “not free to rape, pillage and torture”.
“They are free to go in and fight. And of course, that is in the constitution … Military matters are to be left to the army,” she said, adding that she aimed to amend the constitution.
Almost 75,000 people from the persecuted minority have escaped to Bangladeshafter the military launched operations in the north of Rakhine state to find Rohingya militants who raided police border posts in October.
Rohingya who have fled have told the UN rights office that soldiers executed babies in front of their mothers, as part of campaign to terrorise the Muslim minority.
“If they come back they will be safe,” said Aung San Suu Kyi, adding that those who fled were welcome to return.
Responding to comments voiced in a recent Guardian profile – in which a diplomat said: “Many of the people who led the campaign [to free her] … were more on the liberal side of the spectrum. I think she’s closer to a Margaret Thatcher” – Aung San Suu Kyi knocked back the comparison.
“I’m just a politician,” she told the BBC. I’m not quite like Margaret Thatcher, no. But on the other hand I’m no Mother Teresa either.”
Her National League for Democracy (NLD) faced the ballot box on Saturday in by-elections across the country, winning a string of seats but losing out in ethnic minority areas including Rakhine.
The NLD came to power in a historic 2015 election that ended half a century of brutal military rule, but there has been disillusionment with the administration as it struggles to push through reforms and ease unrest.
Reuters and AFP contributed to this report.