A version of this article appears in print on September 20, 2017, on Page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: Myanmar Leader, a Nobel Laureate, Defends Military From Rohingya Accusations.
NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and de facto leader of Myanmar, stood before a room of government officials and foreign dignitaries on Tuesday to at last, after weeks of international urging, address the plight of the country’s Rohingya ethnic minority.
But those who expected her to eloquently acknowledge a people’s oppression were disappointed.
In her speech, delivered in crisp English and often directly inviting foreign listeners to “join us” in addressing Myanmar’s problems, she steadfastly refused to criticize the country’s military, which has been accused of a vast campaign of killing, rape and village burning.
“The security forces have been instructed to adhere strictly to the code of conduct in carrying out security operations, to exercise all due restraint and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians,” she said.
It has been a stunning reversal for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, 72, who was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her “nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.”
As she spoke, more than 400,000 Rohingya, a Muslim minority long repressed by the Buddhists who dominate Myanmar, had fled a military massacre that the United Nations has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The lucky ones are suffering in makeshift camps in Bangladesh where there is not nearly enough food or medical aid.
A stark satellite analysis by Human Rights Watch shows that at least 210 Rohingya villages have been burned to the ground since the offensive began on Aug. 25. Bangladeshi officials say land mines had been planted on Myanmar’s side of the border, posing a threat to the fleeing Rohingya.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi tried to mollify her critics by saying she was committed to restoring peace and the rule of law.
“We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence,” she said. “We feel deeply for the suffering of all the people caught up in the conflict.”
But, asking why the world did not acknowledge the progress made in her country, she also boasted that Muslims living in the violence-torn area had ample access to health care and radio broadcasts. And she expressed uncertainty about why Muslims might be fleeing the country, even as she sidestepped evidence of widespread abuses by the security forces by saying there had been “allegations and counter-allegations.”
Her speech was remarkably similar in language to that of the generals who had locked her up for the better part of two decades, in the process making her a political legend: the regal prisoner of conscience who vanquished the military with no weapons but her principles.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of the assassinated independence hero Aung San, who founded the modern Burmese Army. She is a member of the country’s elite, from the highest class of the ethnic Bamar Buddhist majority.
Officials in her government have accused the Rohingya, who have suffered decades of persecution and have been mostly stripped of their citizenship, of faking rape and burning their own houses in a bid to hijack international public opinion. She has done nothing to correct the record.
A Facebook page associated with her office suggested that international aid groups were colluding with Rohingya militants, whose attack on Myanmar police posts and an army base precipitated the fierce military counteroffensive. In a statement, her government labeled the insurgent strikes “brutal acts of terrorism.”
During her address, made from a vast convention center in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi tried to evoke a program of grand goals including democratic transition, peace, stability and development.
But she also cautioned that the country’s long experience with authoritarian rule and nearly seven decades of ethnic conflict in Myanmar’s frontier lands have frayed national unity.
“People expect us to overcome all these challenges in as short a time as possible,” she said, noting that her civilian government only took office last year. “Eighteen months is a very short time in which to expect us to meet and overcome all the challenges that we are facing.”
There were worrisome signs from the moment she entered a power-sharing agreement with the military after her National League for Democracy won the 2015 elections.
Myanmar’s generals — who ruled the country for nearly half a century and turned a resource-rich land also known as Burma into an economic failure — stage-managed every facet of the political transition. The Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar Army is known, kept the most important levers of power for itself.
It also effectively relegated Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to the post of state counselor by designing a Constitution that kept her from the presidency.
“It’s always a dance with the generals,” said U Win Htein, an N.L.D. party elder and former military officer, who served alongside some of the Tatmadaw’s highest-ranking generals.
He warned that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi had to placate an army with a history of pushing aside civilian leaders under the pretext of defending national sovereignty.
“The army, they are watching her every word,” he said. “One misstep on the Muslim issue, and they can make their move.”
Yet even before the compromises that accompanied her ascension to power, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was already distancing herself from the hopes invested in her by the rest of the world.
“Let me be clear that I would like to be seen as a politician, not some human rights icon,” she said in an interview shortly after her release from house arrest in 2010.
Such a recasting of her role has disappointed Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates. In an open letter, Desmond Tutu, the South African former archbishop, advised his “dearly beloved younger sister” that “if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and recipient of the prize in 2006, was more pointed.
“She should not have received a Nobel Peace Prize if she says, sorry, I’m a politician, and the norms of democracy don’t suit me,” he said in a telephone interview with The New York Times. “The whole world stood by her for decades, but today she has become the mirror image of Aung San Suu Kyi by destroying human rights and denying citizenship to the Rohingya.”
“All we can do,” he said, “is pray for the return of the old Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Beyond her personal legacy, the direction of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership carries global consequence.
“This is a democratic moment, and she represents Burma’s democratic promise,” said Derek Mitchell, the former American ambassador to Myanmar. “The country sits at the crossroads of Asia in a region where democracy is in retreat, which makes Burma’s success even more important.”
In Tuesday’s speech, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, acknowledged the state of democracy in her country.
“We are a young and fragile democracy facing many problems,” she said, “but we have to cope with them all at the same time.”
But she also stressed that “more than 50 percent” of Rohingya villages in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine remained “intact.” And she seemed to borrow vocabulary from a self-help manual when she described the need to research why certain villages had not been touched by the violence.
“We have to remove the negative and increase the positive,” she said.
Through all of the current Rohingya crisis, and a series of military offensives against other ethnic armed groups, she has publicly supported the military.
“We do not have any trust in Aung San Suu Kyi because she was born into the military,” said Hkapra Hkun Awng, a leader of the Kachin ethnic group from northern Myanmar, one of more than a dozen minorities whose rebel armies have fought the Tatmadaw over the decades. “She is more loyal to her own people than to the ethnics. Her blood is thicker than a promise of national reconciliation.”
Even before the mudslinging of the 2015 election campaign, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was sidestepping questions about the sectarian violence in Rakhine that disproportionately affected the Rohingya. Rather than condemning pogroms against the persecuted Muslim minority, she has dismissed accusations of ethnic cleansing and called, instead, for rule of law to solve any problem.
Because most Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship by the military, it has not been clear how any laws might apply to them. Even though Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said Tuesday that Myanmar was prepared to repatriate refugees who can establish that they are residents of Myanmar, that may be a formidable task for people who are unlikely to have documents proving that.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has largely shielded herself from the media and has holed up in the capital. Although a year ago, as the nation’s new civilian leader, she attended the United Nations General Assembly, and was celebrated by world leaders, this year she chose not to attend, avoiding criticism of her stance on the Rohingya.
Several heads of state who spoke on the General Assembly’s first day of speeches on Tuesday in New York assailed Myanmar for the Rohingya crackdown, with some describing it as an anti-Muslim atrocity.
The president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, whose country’s population of nearly 200 million is nearly half Muslim, said “the Myanmar crisis is very reminiscent of what happened in Bosnia in 1995 and in Rwanda in 1994.” The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country is majority Muslim and who spoke with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi recently, said the Rohingya had been “subjected to almost an ethnic cleansing, with provocative terrorist acts used as a pretext.”
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is attuned enough to public sentiment to understand the deep reservoir of anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar. If anything, her equivocations on the Rohingya have given currency to the widely held assumption in Myanmar that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who have occupied land that rightfully belongs to the Burmese.
Since Myanmar’s political transition began, a virulent strain of Buddhist extremism has pushed such attitudes further into the mainstream. Influential monks have preached anti-Muslim rhetoric and pushed successfully for a law that circumscribes interfaith marriage.
“Buddhist nationalist radicalism has been allowed to spread basically unchecked,” said Min Zin, the executive director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy Myanmar. “The government is doing very little to stop it.”
Saw Nang contributed reporting from Naypyidaw, and Rick Gladstone from New York.