Aung San Suu Kyi denies Rohingya ethnic cleansing in Myanmar
'That is too strong an expression,' says Nobel Peace Prize winner, following reports of army violence in Rakhine region
Aung San Suu Kyi has denied there is ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim group in Myanmar, despite widespread reports to the contrary.
"I don't think there is ethnic cleansing going on," she told the BBC. "I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening."
The Nobel Peace Prize winner, who now effectively leads the country where she spent 15 years under house arrest, has been criticised for her handling of the crisis in the Muslim-majority Rakhine region, where it is alleged the Rohingya people have been murdered, raped and tortured by security forces.
The UN last month agreed to investigate the allegations, which observers say could amount to crimes against humanity.
But Aung San Suu said: "What we are trying to go for is reconciliation not condemnation. It is Muslims killing Muslims as well."
The Rohingya people have long faced violence and persecution in Myanmar, a mainly Buddhist country.
More than 75,000 have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape the crackdown, recounting "grisly accounts of horrendous army abuse, including soldiers allegedly executing an eight-month-old baby while his mother was gang-raped by five security officers", says Al-Jazeera.
Myanmar military officials described the operation as a legitimate counter-insurgency mission, while Suu Kyi told the BBC the army was "not free to rape, pillage and torture".
She added: "They are free to go in and fight and of course, that is in the constitution… Military matters are to be left to the army."
Her remarks have provoked criticism, with a number of commentators saying she risked tarnishing her reputation.
There have been "numerous questions over her leadership and silence on persecution" since Suu Kyi's party the National League for Democracy (NLD) took power in 2015, ending years of military rule, says The Guardian.
Champa Patel, Amnesty International's regional director for south-east Asia and the Pacific, said: "This is not the change the NLD promised to deliver during last year's elections."
Fergal Keane of the BBC, who interviewed Suu Kyi, said the "human rights heroine" was "now alienated from many of her old international supporters".
He added: "Our exchange on Rakhine was polite but robust. I told her that having covered many conflicts I thought that what I'd seen in Rakhine state amounted to ethnic cleansing. Did she worry that instead of being remembered as an icon of human rights it would be as the Nobel laureate who refused to confront ethnic cleansing in her own country? No."
Suu Kyi's reticence on the term "ethnic cleansing" "may reflect her belief in the official government position that the Rohingya are not citizens but illegal immigrants from Bangladesh", says The Times.
"It may also come from a concern not to alienate the support of Burmese Buddhists, many of whom harbour resentful feelings towards Muslims."