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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Myanmar's Suu Kyi makes first visit to crisis-hit northern Rakhine

The Nobel laureate, who leads Myanmar's pro-democracy party, has been heavily lambasted by the international community for failing to use her moral power to speak up in defence of the Rohingya

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi meets with local people at the Sittwe Airport in Sittwe, Rakhine State. Nyunt Win / EPA
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi meets with local people at the Sittwe Airport in Sittwe, Rakhine State. Nyunt Win / EPA

Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrived on her first visit to conflict-battered northern Rakhine State on Thursday, an unannounced trip to an area that has seen most of its Rohingya Muslim population forced out by an army campaign.

Ms Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate who leads Myanmar's pro-democracy party, has been heavily lambasted by the international community for failing to use her moral power to speak up in defence of the Rohingya.

Some 600,000 of the stateless minority have fled to Bangladesh since late August, relating 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 can probably be considered tantamount to ethnic cleansing, while pressure has mounted on Myanmar to provide security for the Rohingya and allow people to return home.

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In addition to the Rakhine state capital Sittwe, Aung San Suu Kyi is also visiting two of the epicentres of the violence, Maungdaw and Buthidaung, as part of the "one-day trip," government spokesman Zaw Htay said.

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 state since 2012, severely damaging Myanmar's global reputation.

It was not clear if Aung San 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 is 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 neighbours, who refuse to let them farm or move freely. On Thursday, the UN again called for unfettered humanitarian access to a zone still under army lockdown. On the same day, 2,500 Rohingya arrived by land at the Bangladesh border, a sign that hunger and fear is still driving people from their homes.

"We were not paid for any work and couldn't go to markets. How long is it possible to live like that?" said one Rohingya refugee.

Aung San 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 separate the Rohingya from their land.

The Myanmar leader, who has the title of State Counsellor, says the Rohingya who have fled are now welcome back, if they meet "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 Ms Suu Kyi to reconsider foisting a controversial national verification card on the minority. The card grants them limited rights of residence in Myanmar, but does not recognise 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 cannot do anything with this NVC card, so we do not want to receive it," the resident said, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals. "We are not Bengalis from Bangladesh, we are Rohingya living here for generations."

Observers say Aung San Suu Kyi has chosen not to criticise the army for 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 defence 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.

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