© 2021 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
News Partners

Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi Cancels U.N. Trip Amid Rohingya Crisis


Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is canceling her trip to the U.N. General Assembly next week. The de facto leader of Myanmar is facing widespread criticism for not stopping the country's military from carrying out atrocities against a stateless Muslim population. It's a dramatic turnaround for a woman who was once a democratic hero, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: After a closed-door meeting, the U.N. Security Council expressed concern about the plight of Rohingya Muslims today. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been urging the council to help resolve what he calls a catastrophic situation.


ANTONIO GUTERRES: This is a dramatic tragedy. People are dying and suffering at horrible numbers, and we need to stop it. That is my main concern.

KELEMEN: He estimates that 380,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh in recent weeks. Asked whether he would call this ethnic cleansing, the U.N. secretary-general put it this way.


GUTERRES: When one third of the Rohingya population had to flee the country, can you find a better word to describe it?

KELEMEN: Guterres says he's spoken to Aung San Suu Kyi several times about this. Suu Kyi is a former political prisoner, and many around the world saw her rise to power as a chance to usher in a new era for the country also known as Burma. But she's been notably quiet and has even suggested there's a lot of misinformation and fake news about the conflict. John Sifton of Human Rights Watch is countering that, publishing satellite imagery to show some of the destruction caused by a military crackdown in Myanmar's Rakhine State.

JOHN SIFTON: You can see two weeks ago the house was intact, and now it's been completely destroyed. And we goes through point by point, house by house, and we've seen now thousands over houses burned to the ground of the last two weeks.

KELEMEN: Speaking via Skype, Sifton says it's been challenging to get a full picture from satellites because it's monsoon season, and there's a lot of cloud cover. So Human Rights Watch has also been interviewing refugees to confirm that the military has been burning villages in the wake of a Rohingya insurgent attack on a police station last month. Sifton says Aung San Suu Kyi's silence has been an enormous disappointment.

SIFTON: But it's also true that the Burmese military is a power unto itself. And Aung San Suu Kyi, however angry we may be at her right now, does not have the constitutional authority over the military that a civilian leader should have.

KELEMEN: Which is why he's encouraging the Trump administration to re-impose sanctions on the military.

SIFTON: Clearly Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese military are denying what's going on, so it's time to start talking about hard consequences.

KELEMEN: Members of Congress are taking steps to scale back planned cooperation with the Burmese military. The White House has been calling on authorities to give media and aid groups access to Rakhine State, though spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders is only gently nudging Suu Kyi to speak out.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Anytime anyone sees something like that taking place, a public condemnation is certainly appropriate.

KELEMEN: Suu Kyi's fellow Nobel laureates, including Malala Yousufzai and Desmond Tutu, have gone further, urging her to stop Burmese military attacks on Rohingya villages. Suu Kyi has canceled plans to go to the U.N. next week where Myanmar is suddenly near the top of the international agenda. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.