Suu Kyi says Myanmar trying to protect all citizens

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The bodies of Rohingya refugees are brought to shore on a boat by fellow Rohingya after being recovered on the Naf river. AFP

YANGON/COX’S BAZAR (Agencies) – Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi said yesterday her government was doing its best to protect everyone in the strife-torn state of Rakhine, as the estimated number of Rohingya Muslims who have fled to Bangladesh leapt by 18,000 in one day, to 164,000.

Ms Suu Kyi did not refer specifically to the exodus of the minority Rohingya, which was sparked by insurgent attacks on August 25 and an army counter-offensive, but said her administration was trying its best to take care of all citizens.

Western critics have accused Ms Suu Kyi of not speaking out for the Rohingya, some 1.1 million people who have long complained of persecution and are seen by many in Buddhist-majority Myanmar as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Some have called for the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991 as a champion of democracy to be revoked.

“We have to take care of our citizens, we have to take care of everybody who is in our country, whether or not they are our citizens,” Ms Suu Kyi said in comments to Reuters Television’s Indian partner, Asian News International.

“Of course, our resources are not as complete and adequate as we would like them to be but, still, we try our best and we want to make sure that everyone is entitled to the protection of the law,” she said during a visit by Indian Prime Narendra Modi to Yangon.

Ms Suu Kyi said the situation in Rakhine has been difficult for many decades and so it was “a little unreasonable” to expect her administration, which has been in power for 18 months, to have resolved it already.

Myanmar says its forces are fighting a legitimate campaign against terrorists responsible for a string of attacks on the police and army since last October. Officials blame Rohingya militants for
killing non-Muslims and burning their homes.

“We need to wipe out the threat of the terrorism in those regions,” Ko Ko Hlaing, a presidential
adviser of the previous government said yesterday at a forum arranged by military-owned media to discuss the crisis.

He said rehabilitation and development are important and the citizenship issue must be settled, but the first priority needed to be “the
detoxification of dangerous ideology of extremism”.

Ms Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, yesterday posted what he said were “photos of Bengalis setting fire to their houses”.

The pictures of several sword-wielding women wearing headscarves and men in Islamic prayer caps, or Kufi, setting a house on fire, which were published in one of the country’s leading newspapers, were also shared widely by the military.

“These photos showing that Bengalis are torching their houses emerge at a time when international media have made groundless accusations of setting fire to Bengali houses by the government security forces and the killings of Bengalis,” said the Eleven Media daily

But the photographs sparked controversy on social media with many people who identified themselves as Myanmar Muslims saying they appeared staged.

Rights monitors and Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh say the Myanmar army has been trying to force them out of Rakhine state with a campaign of arson and killings.

Meanwhile, five Rohingya villagers whose distraught relatives say they were shot dead by the Myanmar military were buried yesterday in Bangladesh at a mass funeral attended by hundreds of people after their bodies were carried across the border.

The relatives said the victims had been killed by the Myanmar military on Wednesday, a claim that could not be independently confirmed but tallies with multiple accounts of killings in Rohingya villages.

Sufia Begum, an elderly Rohingya woman aboard, said she had relatives among the dead.

“They were all killed,” she wept, pointing to a lifeless man covered in plastic sheeting and another corpse wrapped in cloth.

One victim, identified by survivors as the imam of their village mosque in Myanmar, had sustained a gunshot wound to the head.

“Five of them had bullet wounds,” Chailau Marma, deputy police chief of Cox’s Bazar, said. “Relatives of the deceased carried the bodies into Bangladesh after they failed to bury them in Myanmar. They all died yesterday.”

Boatloads of exhausted Rohingya continued to arrive in the Cox’s Bazar region of neighbouring Bangladesh yesterday. The latest estimate by UN workers operating there put arrivals in just 13 days at 164,000, up from 146,000 from the day before.

UN officials in Bangladesh now believe the total number of refugees from Myanmar since August 25 could reach 300,000, said Dipayan Bhattacharyya, who is Bangladesh spokesman for the World
Food Programme.

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