SITTWE, Myanmar: Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrived on her first visit to conflict-battered northern Rakhine State on Thursday, an official said, an unannounced trip to an area that has seen most of its Rohingya Muslim population forced out by an army campaign.
Suu Kyi, a nobel laureate who leads Myanmar’s pro-democracy party, has been hammered by the international community for failing to use her moral power to speak up in defense of the Rohingya.
Some 600,000 of the stateless minority have fled to Bangladesh since late August carrying accounts of murder, rape and arson at the hands of Myanmar’s powerful army, after militant raids sparked a ferocious military retaliation.
The UN says that crackdown is likely tantamount to ethnic cleansing, while pressure has mounted on Myanmar to provide security for the Rohingya and allow people to return home.
In addition to the state capital Sittwe, Suu Kyi is also visiting two of the epicenters of the violence, Maungdaw and Buthidaung, as part of the “one day trip,” government spokesman Zaw Htay told Agence France-Presse.
It is her first trip in office to northern Rakhine, which has seen some of the worst of the communal violence that has cut through the western state since 2012, severely damaging Myanmar’s global reputation.
It was not clear if Suu Kyi would visit some of the hundreds of Rohingya villages torched by the army—allegedly aided by ethnic Rakhine Buddhist locals.
But “The Lady”—as she in known—did meet with Rohingya in Maungdaw, according to local media, a first for a leader keen to convince observers inside the country and abroad that the crisis has abated and reconstruction of Rakhine can begin.
The Rohingya who remain in northern Rakhine are living in fear, surrounded by hostile neighbors, who refuse to let them farm or move freely.
The UN on Thursday again called for unfettered humanitarian access to a zone still under army lockdown.
On Thursday 2,500 Rohingya arrived by land at the Bangladesh border, a sign hunger and fear is still driving people from their homes.
“The army didn’t attack us but made our life very difficult,”Mohammad Zafar, 35, from a village in Buthidaung told Agence France-Presse at the Bangladesh border.
“We were not paid for any work and couldn’t go to markets. How long is it possible to live like that?”
‘Here for generations’
Suu Kyi heads a committee charged with rebuilding Rakhine.
She was joined on Thursday by businessman Zaw Zaw, one of a host of military “cronies” who thrived under junta rule and are now taking prominent roles in rebuilding the battered region.
There are fears a carve-up of contracts in Rakhine by big business will further divorce the Rohingya from their land.
She says the Rohingya who have fled are now welcome back, if they meet contested “verification” criteria for re-entry to Myanmar.
The Rohingya are loathed in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship and denigrated as illegal “Bengali” immigrants.
Their legal status is at the crux of communal tensions, with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists adamant that Rohingya are foreign interlopers.
A Rohingya resident who has remained in Maungdaw town appealed to Suu Kyi to reconsider foisting a controversial national verification card (NVC) on the minority.
The card grants them limited rights of residence in Myanmar, but does not recognize them as an ethnic group with citizenship.
The Rohingya say it is a bureaucratic attempt to erase their identity and force a shaky legal status onto them in a region where many claim generations of ancestry.
“We can not do anything with this NVC card, so we do not want to receive it,” the resident said, requesting anonymity fearing reprisals.
“We are not Bengalis from Bangladesh, we are Rohingya living here for generations.”
Observers say Suu Kyi has chosen not to criticize the army in fear of a backlash from a powerful institution that controls all security matters.
The plight of the Rohingya garners little sympathy inside Myanmar, making a defense of the minority a politically toxic cause.
The Rohingya have packed into makeshift camps on a poor, already overcrowded slip of border land inside Bangladesh.
Aid groups say the risk of major outbreaks of disease is high, while they struggle to deliver food and basic supplies to the unprecedented number of refugees.
Myanmar’s army denies abuses in its campaign to flush out Rohingya militants whose attacks in late August sparked the latest round of a festering communal crisis.