NAYPYITAW, Myanmar — Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and de facto leader of Myanmar, stood before a room of government officials and foreign dignitaries on Tuesday to at last, after weeks of international urging, address the plight of the country’s Rohingya ethnic minority.
But those who expected Suu Kyi to eloquently acknowledge a people’s oppression were disappointed.
In her speech, delivered in crisp English and often directly inviting foreign listeners to “join us” in addressing Myanmar’s problems, she steadfastly refused to criticize the Myanmar military, which has been accused of a vast campaign of killing, rape, and village burning.
“The security forces have been instructed to adhere strictly to the code of conduct in carrying out security operations, to exercise all due restraint, and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians,” she said.
As she spoke, more than 400,000 Rohingya, a Muslim minority long repressed by the Buddhists who dominate Myanmar, had fled a military massacre that the United Nations has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The lucky ones are suffering in makeshift camps in Bangladesh where there is not nearly enough food or medical aid.
A stark satellite analysis by Human Rights Watch shows that at least 210 of their villages have been burned to the ground since the offensive began on Aug. 25. Bangladeshi officials say that land mines had been planted on Myanmar’s side of the border, where the Rohingya are fleeing.
Suu Kyi tried to mollify her critics by saying she was committed to restoring peace and the rule of law.
“We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence,” she said. “We feel deeply for the suffering of all the people caught up in the conflict.”
But, asking why the world did not acknowledge the progress made in her country, she also boasted that Muslims living in the violence-torn area had ample access to health care and radio broadcasts. And she expressed uncertainty about why Muslims might be fleeing the country, even as she sidestepped evidence of widespread abuses by the security forces by saying there had been “allegations and counterallegations.”
Officials in Suu Kyi’s government have accused the Rohingya, who have suffered decades of persecution and have been mostly stripped of their citizenship, of faking rape and burning their own houses in a bid to hijack international public opinion. She has done nothing to correct the record.
A Facebook page associated with her office suggested that international aid groups were colluding with Rohingya militants, whose attack on Myanmar police posts and an army base precipitated the fierce military counteroffensive. In a statement, her government labeled the insurgent strikes “brutal acts of terrorism.”
It has been a stunning reversal for Suu Kyi, 72, who was once celebrated alongside the likes of Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to her for her “nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.”
During her address, made from a vast convention center in Naypyitaw, Myanmar’s capital, Suu Kyi tried to evoke a program of grand goals including democratic transition, peace, stability, and development.
But she also cautioned that the country’s long experience with authoritarian rule and nearly seven decades of ethnic conflict in Myanmar’s frontier lands, have frayed national unity.
“People expect us to overcome all these challenges in as short a time as possible,” she said, noting that her civilian government only took office last year. “Eighteen months is a very short time in which to expect us to meet and overcome all the challenges that we are facing.”
There were worrisome signs from the moment she entered a power-sharing agreement with the military after her National League for Democracy won 2015 elections.
Myanmar’s generals — who ruled the country for nearly half a century and turned a resource-rich land also known as Burma into an economic failure — stage-managed every facet of the political transition. The Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar Army is known, made sure to keep the most important levers of power for itself.
It also effectively relegated Suu Kyi to the post of state counselor by designing a constitution that kept her from the presidency.
“It’s always a dance with the generals,” said Win Htein, an NLD party elder. “She needs to be very quick on her feet.”
Win Htein, a former military officer who served alongside some of the Tatmadaw’s highest-ranking generals, warned that Suu Kyi had to placate an army with a history of pushing aside civilian leaders under the pretext of defending national sovereignty.
“The army, they are watching her every word,” he said. “One misstep on the Muslim issue, and they can make their move.”
Yet even before the compromises that accompanied her ascension to power, Suu Kyi was already distancing herself from the hopes invested in her by the rest of the world.
“Let me be clear that I would like to be seen as a politician, not some human rights icon,” she said in an interview shortly after her release from house arrest in 2010.
Such a recasting of her role has disappointed Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates. In an open letter, Desmond Tutu, the South African former archbishop, advised his “dearly beloved younger sister” that “if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, was even more pointed.
“She should not have received a Nobel Peace Prize if she says, sorry, I’m a politician, and the norms of democracy don’t suit me,” he said in a telephone interview with The New York Times. “The whole world stood by her for decades, but today she has become the mirror image of Aung San Suu Kyi by destroying human rights and denying citizenship to the Rohingya.”
“All we can do,” he said, “is pray for the return of the old Aung San Suu Kyi.”