Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has visited Rakhine state for the first time since hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims began fleeing the country to escape a brutal military operation launched in late August.
Al Jazeera’s Florence Looi, reporting from Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, said on Thursday that Rakhine state government spokesman said she was on the trip to “show there is stability in the region”.
News of the Myanmar leader’s visit comes as a group of US senators consider legislation targeting Myanmar’s military for sanctions over the Rohingya crisis.
The Myanmar government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has downplayed the deadly ethnic violence in Rakhine state despite reports of continued exodus of Rohingya to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Reuters news agency reported that thousands of desperate Rohingya waded through shallows and narrow creeks between islands of the Naf river to reach Bangladesh on Wednesday evening.
“The government has been trying to push the narrative that peace and stability have been achieved in Rakhine state after two months of renewed military offensive that began on August 25,” Looi said.
The NLD organised an interfaith rally in Yangon on Wednesday to showcase Myanmar’s multiculturalism. But critics say it was more of a public relations exercise as the Rohingya crisis was not even mentioned at the event.
More than a half million Rohingya have taken shelter in Bangladesh, fleeing arson, looting and gang rape allegedly being carried out by the military and Buddhist mobs. The military calls it a “clearance operation” planned against Rohingya armed groups who attacked an army base.
The UN has called it “textbook ethnic cleansing” – a charge the Myanmar government continues to deny.
Aung San Suu Kyi has faced international condemnation for not speaking against the atrocities that the Rohingya have faced. Her government, since succeeding a military regime, has done little to address the plight of one of the most persecuted communities in the world.
The ethnic community, the majority of whom are Muslims, has been denied citizenship, rendering it stateless.
According to local media, Aung San Suu Kyi visited two villages in Rakhine’s Maungdaw district – one of the worst affected by the anti-Rohingya violence.
“She apparently took questions from some Rohingya villagers and her advice to them was: ‘When you encounter a problem you have to let the government know?’,” Al Jazeera’s Looi said.
Our correspondent said reports from Rohingya villagers tell a very different story.
“They say they are still planning to leave for Bangladesh, because many feel that they cannot live peacefully in Rakhine state. They fear for their lives and they know what happened to their neighbouring villages,” she said.
“People are still stuck in the so-called buffer zones between Myanmar and Bangladesh. They are left in a very precarious situation.
“It also underscores the point how difficult the situation in Rakhine state is despite what the government might say.”