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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

As Rohingya flee Myanmar, Suu Kyi skips UN General Assembly

Presidential office spokesman Zaw Htay said Ms Suu Kyi will skip the assembly to address domestic security issues

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi will no longer be attending the UN General Assembly. In this photo, taken on August 11, 2017, she delivers a speech during the Forum on Myanmar Democratic Transition in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. Aung Shine Oo / The Associated Press
Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi will no longer be attending the UN General Assembly. In this photo, taken on August 11, 2017, she delivers a speech during the Forum on Myanmar Democratic Transition in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. Aung Shine Oo / The Associated Press

Aung San Suu Kyi has cancelled plans to attend the United Nations General Assembly next week as international condemnation mounts over ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population in Myanmar.

As the de facto head of government and also Myanmar’s foreign affairs minister, Aung San Suu Kyi was expected to address the gathering of world leaders in New York. But on Wednesday her spokesman announced that, instead, the country's vice president Henry Van Thio would attend the summit, which runs through next week. The president, Htin Kyaw, is in hospital.

Spokesman Zaw Htay said Aung San Suu Kyi was needed in Myanmar to "manage humanitarian assistance" and "security concerns" caused by the violence.

"The first reason [for not attending] is because of the Rakhine terrorist attacks," Mr Zaw Htay said. "The state counsellor is focusing on calming 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."

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Recent military actions in Myanmar's northern Rakhine State have sent over 370,000 Rohingya fleeing over the border into Bangladesh.

Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace prize recipient, has so far failed to speak publicly on the crisis and has been condemned by human rights groups for inflammatory declarations published by her information committee.

The announcement that she would not be attending next week's UN General Assembly came as the Security Council prepared to discuss the crisis at a closed-doors meeting on Wednesday.

Speaking at a news conference ahead of the meeting, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres described the humanitarian situation in Myanmar as "catastrophic" and called on all countries to do what they can to provide aid.

"I call on the Myanmar authorities to suspend military action, end the violence, uphold the rule of law and recognise the right of return of all those who had to leave the country," he said.

Asked if the situation could be described as ethnic cleansing, Mr Guterres replied: "Well I would answer your question with another question: When one-third of the Rohingya population had to flee the country, could you find a better word to describe it?"

His remarks followed those of UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, who on Monday said the military actions in Rakhine appeared to be a “text book example of ethnic cleansing”.

The UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar has estimated that 1,000 people have died in the recent violence. Bangladesh says the figure could be as high as 3,000.

Myanmar’s neighbour — already a poor country — is struggling to cope with a massive influx of refugees in the past three weeks, with hundreds of thousands of people in desperate need of basic aid.

Fellow Nobel Peace laureates, including the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai, have all called on Aung San Suu Kyi to stop the violence.

However last week she said the crisis was being distorted by a "huge iceberg of misinformation".

The Myanmar government has consistently denied large-scale atrocities are being perpetrated against the Rohingya in the wake of August 25 attacks on security posts in Rakhine state by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

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Read more:

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Muhammad Yunus: ‘Aung San Suu Kyi should tell the Rohingya that Myanmar is as much their home as it is hers’

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Myanmar has declared the group a terrorist organisation and blames the insurgents and other Rohingya for large scale arson attacks on their own communities. Journalists who visited the region have seen evidence that raises doubts about claims that Rohingya set fire to their own homes.

Many of the fleeing Rohingya have said Myanmar soldiers shot indiscriminately, burnt their homes and warned them to leave or die in what the government has called "clearance operations". Others said they were attacked by Buddhist mobs.

Zaw Htay said Aung San Suu Kyi would "speak for national reconciliation and peace" in a televised address on September 19. It will be the first time she addresses the nation in just short of four weeks since the attacks which sparked the recent violence.As many as 30,000 ethnic Rakhine and other non-Buddhist civilians are also reported to have fled their homes amid the ongoing violence.

On Monday she did make a statement “welcoming” UN condemnation of the Arsa attacks, but made no reference to the UN's charge of ethnic cleansing.

She also defended the military's operations as part of their "legitimate duty to restore stability", saying troops were under orders to avoid “the harming of innocent civilians”.

As head of the civilian government she has no control over the actions of the powerful military on the ground and little scope to intervene, but her civilian administration has also been accused of complicity in its repeated denial of abuses and denunciations of those who make such allegations.

The government has refused to co-operate with a UN investigation into allegations of military reprisals against Rohingya civilians after smaller scale attacks by Arsa last year. If true, the UN has said those reprisals could be classed as crimes against humanity.

During a visit to Brussels in May Aung San Suu Kyi said, “I am not sure quite what you mean by saying that we have not been concerned at all with regards to the allegations of atrocities that have taken place in the Rakhine. We have been investigating them and have been taking action."

Wednesday’s discussion by the powerful UN Security Council of concerns over what is being perpetrated against the Rohingya in Rakhine comes at the request of Britain and Sweden, after the UK raised the issue at a behind closed doors meeting last week.

According to diplomats, China, which has considerable financial investments in Myanmar, has strongly resisted any move by the Security Council to address the unfolding crisis.

The White House on Monday broke its silence on the issue, referring to attacks by both sides, including the militant ambushes in Rakhine.

"The United States is deeply troubled by the ongoing crisis in Burma," said press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

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Read more:

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Violence has driven away nearly half of Myanmar's Muslims in less than a year

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