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No surprises, but Aung San Suu Kyi shocks with comments on Rohingya

Sydney Morning Herald - September 15, 2018

Michael Ruffles When Aung San Suu Kyi broke her silence with even-handed indifference about the Rohingya genocide and the jailing of two reporters in Myanmar on Thursday, there were few surprises.

Yet it was still shocking to watch the former human rights icon speak so coldly, and deflect so callously, about issues which have earned international condemnation.

Visiting Hanoi for the World Economic Forum as state counsellor and foreign minister, Suu Kyi conceded only that the "security situation" in Rakhine state, which observers and the United Nations say is genocide, might have been better handled.

"There are, of course, ways in which, with hindsight, we might think that the situation could have been handled better," she said. "But we believe that for the sake of long-term stability and security, we have to be fair to all sides, that rule of law must apply to everybody."

Suu Kyi also referred to the October 2016 terrorist attacks as having "launched" the problems, which is at best disingenuous. The initial reports were that nine soldiers and police were killed; in the crackdown that followed 700,000 refugees poured across the Myanmar border over several months, an untold number were raped and killed and entire villages were erased from the map.

Even by suggesting equivalence, Suu Kyi left herself open to accusations she was taking the side of the military responsible for the atrocities.

Suu Kyi also responded to criticism over the trial of the two Reuters reporters, who were sentenced in Yangon on September 3 to seven years in prison for breaches of the Official Secrets Act during their reporting of the Rohingya massacre. US Vice-President Mike Pence was among those who have called for their release, while the news agency maintains its reporters were set up for doing their jobs.

"The case has been held in open court," Suu Kyi said. "If anybody feels there has been a miscarriage of justice, I would like them to point it out. I wonder whether very many people have actually read the summary of the judgment, which had nothing to do with freedom of expression at all, it had to do with the Official Secrets Act. But I don't think anybody has actually bothered to read it.

"They were not jailed because they were journalists."

The condemnation was swift. US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, led the charge, tweeting: "First, in denial about the abuse the Burmese military placed on the Rohingya, now justifying the imprisonment of the two Reuters reporters who reported on the ethnic cleansing. Unbelievable."

First in denial about the abuse the Burmese military placed on the Rohingya, now justifying the imprisonment of the two Reuters reporters who reported on the ethnic cleansing. Unbelievable. https://t.co/ThqGgczEkf Nikki Haley (@nikkihaley) September 13, 2018

Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson told Reuters Suu Kyi was wrong when she spoke about the verdict.

"She fails to understand that real 'rule of law' means respect for evidence presented in court, actions brought based on clearly defined and proportionate laws, and independence of the judiciary."

Suu Kyi's comments come as little surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the political career of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, as even before her landslide 2015 election victory there were rumblings about how she ruled her party with an iron fist and struck an uneasy bargain with the military to get into Parliament.

While still adored by the Bamar majority within the country, her most notable response to international concern at human rights abuses has been silence.

Her words this week have the power to shock not only because of how far she has fallen, but because of how powerless she seems to do anything more than parrot the military's excuses.

Constitutionally, she is hamstrung: she will never be president and 25 per cent of the parliament and key ministries are guaranteed for the armed forces, plus whatever seats their proxy parties win on their own. She has no oversight of the army or any security decisions, and has no control over Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the military commander recently booted of Facebook for his part in the Rohingya atrocities.

Yet Suu Kyi knew the devilish details of the bargain she struck in 2015, and she spoke this week of preparing to run again in 2020.

"Although we only have 75 per cent of the power we have to accept 100 per cent of the responsibility," she said. "That's what elected government's all about."

If only she could live up to those words.

[Michael Ruffles is a Fairfax Media journalist who has previously worked in south-east Asia.]

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/no-surprises-but-aung-san-suu-kyi-shocks-with-comments-on-rohingya-20180914-p503r0.html.

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