Rohingya refugees: Was Aung San Suu Kyi's speech too little, too late?

Rohingya refugees: Was Aung San Suu Kyi's speech too little, too late?

Rohingya refugees: Was Aung San Suu Kyi's speech too little, too late?

Updated 20 September 2017, 0:30 AEST

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi may be a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, but her address to the nation was more the speech of a politician, writes Anne Barker.

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi's speech to the nation about the humanitarian plight of the Rohingya people is too little too late for those in the international community who have repeatedly demanded she speak up for the rights of the Muslim minority.

Not once during her half-hour speech did Ms Suu Kyi even utter the word 'Rohingya', referring to them as the 'Muslims' of Rakhine state.

Nor did she explicitly acknowledge the brutal military crackdown by Myanmar's military since late August, that has forced more than 400,000 Rohingyas to flee for their lives into Bangladesh, and left hundreds dead.

Her only reference instead was that since September 5 there had been "no armed clashes and there have been no clearance operations" — a statement that contradicts the stories of many Rohingya refugees now in Bangladesh.

Indeed, to say that Ms Suu Kyi glossed over the Rohingyas' plight is an understatement.

True, she did condemn "all human rights violations" and declared Myanmar's commitment to restoring peace and stability.

"We feel deeply for the suffering for all the people who have been caught up in the conflict," she said.

But in the next breath, she qualified her words by acknowledging the many other groups affected by the conflict, "not just Muslims".

"Those who have had to flee their homes are many, not just Muslims and Rakhines, but also small minority groups," she said.

She also said more than 50 per cent of Muslim villages were still intact, just as they were before the attacks took place.

Ms Suu Kyi may be a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, but her address to the nation was more the speech of a politician, treading a line between what Myanmar's military rulers — and the country's majority Buddhist population — want to hear, and what the international community expects from a peace advocate.

There have been calls for the Nobel Prize to be revoked.

Ms Suu Kyi of course has no control over Myanmar's military, and to say anything stronger than she did on Tuesday could well have been politically risky in a country where the military still holds most of the power.

And to her credit, she did also try to bring long-term change by overseeing a year-long commission — led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan — aimed at healing the divisions between Myanmar's Rohingya community and local Buddhists.

That commission — which released its report the day before Rohingya militants launched attacks on Myanmar security forces, sparking the military crackdown — recommended key reforms, including changes to laws that currently deny Rohingyas citizenship in Myanmar.

She did also offer to start a process of "verification" that could potentially allow Rohingyas to return to Myanmar. But that may be little reassurance to those who have been forced to flee at the hands of a violent Government.

International diplomats in Naypyidaw were apparently invited to a private meeting with Ms Suu Kyi soon after she finished her address, where a more strident conversation might ensue over the human rights issues at stake.

The UN has already labelled Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingyas as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing".

And there will undoubtedly be more vociferous comment at the UN General Assembly in New York later this week, especially given Ms Suu Kyi cancelled her own attendance there, in the wake of the crisis.