With Myanmar drawing condemnation for violence that has driven at least 370,000 Rohingya to flee the country, the government said Wednesday its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, will skip this month’s U.N. General Assembly.
Suu Kyi will miss the assembly, which opened Tuesday and runs through Sept. 25, in order to address domestic security issues, according to presidential office spokesman Zaw Htay.
Her appearance at last year’s General Assembly was a landmark: her first since her party won elections in 2015 and replaced a military-dominated government. Even then, however, she faced criticism over Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims, whose name she did not utter. Members of the ethnic group are commonly referred to as “Bengalis” by many in Buddhist-majority Myanmar who insist they migrated illegally from Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi is not Myanmar’s president — her official titles are state counselor and foreign minister — but she effectively serves as leader of the Southeast Asian nation.
Zaw Htay said that, with President Htin Kyaw hospitalized, second Vice President Henry Van Tio would attend the U.N. meeting.
“The first reason (Suu Kyi cannot attend) is because of the Rakhine terrorist attacks,” Zaw Htay said. “The state counselor is focusing to calm the situation in Rakhine state. There are circumstances. The second reason is, there are people inciting riots in some areas. We are trying to take care of the security issue in many other places. The third is that we are hearing that there will be terrorist attacks and we are trying to address this issue.”
The crisis erupted on Aug. 25, when an insurgent Rohingya group attacked police outposts in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. That prompted Myanmar’s military to launch “clearance operations” against the rebels, setting off a wave of violence that has left hundreds dead and thousands of homes burned — mostly Rohingya in both cases.
Zaw Htay said of 471 “Bengali” villages in three townships, 176 are now completely empty and at least 34 others are partially abandoned. He said there had been at least 86 clashes through Sept. 5, but none since then.
“What that means is, when the security forces are trying to stabilize the region, they have succeeded to a point,” he said.
The government blames Rohingya for the violence, but journalists who visited the region found evidence that raises doubts about its claims that Rohingya set fire to their own homes.
Many of the Rohingya who flooded into refugee camps in Bangladesh told of Myanmar soldiers shooting indiscriminately, burning their homes and warning them to leave or die. Others said they were attacked by Buddhist mobs.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who lived under house arrest for many years under a military junta that ultimately gave way to an elected government, has faced a torrent of international criticism and pressure since the crisis erupted.
Hundreds of people marched in India’s capital on Wednesday demanding an end to violence against Rohingya in Myanmar. Police stopped the group some distance from Myanmar’s embassy.
The protesters criticized Suu Kyi, asking whether she had received the Nobel Prize for promoting peace or for persecuting Rohingya.
Bangladesh has been overwhelmed with the massive influx of Rohingya, many of whom arrived hungry and traumatized after walking for days through jungles or being packed into rickety wooden boats.
Thousands lined up on Wednesday outside a makeshift relief center in Cox’s Bazar district that was distributing rice, sugar and other relief materials.
Mamunur Rashid of the International Organization for Migration said the supplies would be enough to help about 5,000 of the roughly 370,000 Rohingya who have arrived in Bangladesh in recent weeks.
Before Aug. 25, Bangladesh had already been housing some 500,000 Rohingya refugees who fled earlier flashes of violence including anti-Muslim riots in 2012.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has pledged to help the new arrivals, but demanded that Myanmar “take their nationals back.”
Many of the new arrivals were staying in schools, or were huddling under tarps in makeshift settlements along roads and in open fields.
Basic resources were scarce, including food, clean water and medical aid.
Dozens of foreign diplomats and aid agency officials were set to meet Rohingya refugees Wednesday near the Kutupalong refugee camp, according to Kazi Abdur Rahman, additional deputy commissioner in Cox’s Bazar district.
“A humanitarian crisis is going on here,” he said. The diplomats “will visit camps, talk to them, see their condition. We need to work together during such a serious crisis.”
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the world’s largest Muslim body, urged Myanmar to allow in U.N. monitors so they can investigate what it alleged was systematic brutality against the Rohingya. The U.N. Human Rights Council approved an investigative mission earlier this year, but Myanmar in June refused to allow it to enter. An envoy’s visit in July was met with protests.
Rohingya have faced decades of discrimination and persecution in Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship despite centuries-old roots in the country.