Suu Kyi's Rohingya speech: Too little, too late?

Rights activists have expressed their disappointment over Aung San Suu Kyi's speech on the Rohingya crisis. DW looks at why the democracy icon has struggled with discussing rights abuses in Rakhine.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de facto leader and the Nobel Peace laureate, finally broke her silence on the military operation in the western Rakhine state that has sparked global condemnation in the past few weeks.

Suu Kyi, however, spoke about the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Rakhine in general terms, while mentioning nothing specific about the plight of the Rohingya Muslims, thousands of whom have fled to Bangladesh since the start of the latest wave of violence on August 25.

"We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence. We are committed to the restoration of peace and stability and rule of law throughout the state," Suu Kyi said in Myanmar's capital, Naypyidaw.

Suu Kyi said she "felt deeply" for the suffering of the civilians who were caught up in the conflict and that she wanted to end the suffering as soon as possible.

"We are concerned to hear the number of Muslims fleeing areas to Bangladesh," she said, condemning any "human rights violations" that may have exacerbated the crisis. She asked for the international community's help to finding a solution, adding that Myanmar did not fear international scrutiny.

Suu Kyi nevertheless invited diplomats to visit Rohingya Muslim villages in her speech, insisting that most had not been affected by the violence.

"The majority of Muslims have not joined the exodus," she said. "We want to find out why this exodus is happening."

Read moreRohingya people in Myanmar: what you need to know

Read more: Myanmar's Rohingya rebels - What you need to know

'Burying their heads in the sand'

James Gomez, regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific for Amnesty International, expressed his disappointment over Suu Kyi's reaction to the situation.

"Aung San Suu Kyi today [Monday] demonstrated that she and her government are still burying their heads in the sand over the horrors unfolding in Rakhine State," Gomez said.

Responding to Suu Kyi's claim that the military operation against Rohingya militants ceased earlier this month, Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said, "If that is true, then who is burning all the villages we've seen in the past two weeks?"

Paul Edwards, UNICEF deputy representative in Myanmar, said it was difficult to comment on the ground situation as Myanmar's government blocked access to international monitors in Rakhine state.

"We have to take at face value what she said about there being no further military operation since September 5. But of course none of us really know what's happening there if we're not there," said Edwards.

But Andrew Kirkwood, director and Myanmar representative of the United Nations Office for Project Services, welcomed Suu Kyi's announcement that diplomats could finally travel to Rakhine to assess the situation.

"I think that that is a positive statement and we wait to see what follow-up there is," Andrew said.

'Last chance'

On Sunday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Aung San Suu Kyi, had one "last chance" to end the violence in the west of the country that has caused a refugee crisis along the Myanmar-Bangladeshi border.

"I would expect that the leader of the country would be able to contain it, and would be able to reverse the situation," Guterres said in an interview with the BBC.

"She has a chance, she has a last chance, in my opinion, to do so."

He warned that "the tragedy will be absolutely horrible," if Suu Kyi and the influential Myanmar military do not solve the crisis soon.

The number of the Muslim Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh has topped 410,000, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). Thousands more arrive every day, the UN said on Sunday.

Suu Kyi cancelled a planned trip to the UN in New York on Wednesday. Her spokesman, Zaw Htay, cited "Rakhine terrorist attacks" for the decision.

Read more: Myanmar Rohingya crackdown: 'A textbook example of ethnic cleansing,' says UN

A protracted conflict

The Rohingya are an ethnic minority in Myanmar, which originates from the Indian sub continent. For several centuries they have lived predominantly in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine - also known as Arakan. They are predominately Muslim.

The Rohingya are not officially recognized by the government as citizens and for decades Myanmar's Buddhist majority has been accused of subjecting them to discrimination and violence.

Viewed by the United Nations and the United States as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh flee their countries every year in a desperate attempt to reach mainly Muslim-majority countries, Malaysia and Indonesia.

In 2012, clashes between the Rohingya and Buddhist nationalists led to scores of deaths, forcing tens of thousands of Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Some 200,000 people - mostly Rohingya - have been living in camps in Rakhine since the 2012 clashes.

In October last year, Rohingya militants attacked several security checkpoints and killed scores of police officers. Myanmar's security forces responded by launching counter-terrorism operations against insurgents. Human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, said these operations involved arbitrary killings, systematic rapes, the burning of houses and forced expulsions of locals.

On August 25, violence broke out in Rakhine when around 100 armed Muslim insurgents attacked security guards in the border region with Bangladesh. Myanmar's security forces and Muslim minority Rohingya militants accuse each other of burning down villages and staging mass killings.

Read more: Indian government tells Supreme Court Rohingya pose 'serious threat'

Military in driving seat

Tin Maung Swe, secretary of the Rakhine state government, praised Suu Kyi's Monday speech expressed caution over the possibility of a political solution to the crisis.

"The situation is ready to explode. It just needs a single spark," Swe said.

Experts say that Suu Kyi faces a dilemma on how to deal with the Rohingya situation. As a human rights icon - as she is known internationally, and also in the West - it is her duty to raise her voice in support of the Rohingya plight and denounce the acts by the government and the majority Buddhists, and also by instigators in the Rohingya camps. But Suu Kyi does not want to lose support of the majority Buddhists for raising her voice in support of the Rohingya.

Also, despite winning the 2015 election, Suu Kyi and her party has limited powers in Myanmar, which is still pretty much under control of the powerful military.

At the same time, the Rohingya conflict is increasingly taking a religious angle with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), previously known as Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement), attacking the government security forces. There are reports that many Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are also willing to join the ARSA ranks.

Militancy in Rakhine obviously gives Myanmar's army a reason to crackdown on "terrorists," and since a political dialogue is nowhere on the horizon, Suu Kyi has in effect very little role to play to resolve the crisis.

The flight of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to Bangladesh

Seeking refuge

A series of coordinated attacks by Rohingya insurgents on Myanmar security forces in the north of Myanmar's Rakhine State triggered a crackdown by Myanmar forces that has sent a stream of Rohingya villagers fleeing to Bangladesh. About 400 people have been killed in the clashes in Buddist-majority Myanmar.

The flight of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to Bangladesh

Mass evacuation

A Rohingya man passes a child though a barbed wire border fence on the border with Bangladesh. Myanmar accused the Rohingya insurgents of torching seven villages, one outpost, and two parts of Maungdaw town.

The flight of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to Bangladesh

Buddhist refugees on their way south

The crackdown by Myanmar forces also sparked a mass evacuation of thousands of Buddhist residents of the area. Tension has long been high between the Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists, leading to bloody rioting in 2012. Rakhine Buddhists, feeling unsafe after the upsurge in fighting, are moving south to the state's capital, Sittwe, where Buddhists are a majority and have greater security.

The flight of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to Bangladesh

No entry

Bangladeshi border guards block people from crossing. Thousands of Rohingyas have sought to flee the fighting to Bangladesh, with nearly 30,000 crossing over. Bangladesh, which is already host to more than 400,000 Rohingya said it will not accept any more refugees, despite an appeal by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for Dhaka to allow Rohingya to seek safety.

The flight of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to Bangladesh

Humanitarian crisis

An aid worker with an international agency in Bangladesh reports: "What we're seeing is that many Rohingya people are sick. This is because they got stuck in the border before they could enter. It's mostly women and children." The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Myanmar and classified as illegal immigrants, despite claiming roots there that go back centuries.

The flight of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to Bangladesh

Not welcome in Bangladesh

A group of Rohingya refugees takes shelter at the Kutuupalang makeshift refugee camp in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. Bangladesh's unwillingness to host more refugees became apparent in the government's plan to relocate Rohingyas to a remote island that is mostly flooded during the monsoon season.

The flight of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to Bangladesh

Stranded in no man's land

Rohingya children make their way through water as they try to come to the Bangladesh side from no man's land. Tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees are believed to be stuck at the border to Bangladesh.