Yangon, Sept. 13 (Reuters): Myanmar's national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, facing outrage over ethnic violence that has forced about 370,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh, will not attend the upcoming UN General Assembly because of the crisis, her office said on Wednesday.
The exodus of refugees, sparked by security forces' fierce response to a series of Rohingya militant attacks, is the biggest problem Suu Kyi has faced since becoming Myanmar's leader last year.
Critics have called for her to be stripped of her Nobel peace prize for failing to do more to halt the strife which the UN rights agency said was a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Aid agencies will have to step up operations “massively” in response to the refugee flow into Bangladesh, a senior UN official said, adding that the $77 million the United Nations had appealed for last week would not be enough.
But a Bangladeshi border force officer said the number of people crossing into his area had fallen sharply, apparently because everyone had left districts most affected by the violence.
In her first address to the UN General Assembly as national leader in September last year, Suu Kyi defended her government’s efforts to resolve the crisis over treatment of the Muslim minority.
This year, her office said she would not be attending because of the security threats posed by the insurgents and her efforts to restore peace and stability.
”She is trying to control the security situation, to have internal peace and stability, and to prevent the spread of communal conflict,” Zaw Htay, the spokesman for Suu Kyi's office, told Reuters
International pressure has been growing on Buddhist-majority Myanmar to end the violence in the western state of Rakhine that began on August 25 when Rohingya militants attacked about 30 police posts and an army camp.
The attacks triggered a sweeping military counter-offensive against the insurgents, who the government has described as terrorists.
But refugees say the security operation is aimed at pushing Rohingya out of Myanmar.
They, and rights groups, paint a picture of widespread attacks on Rohingya villages in the north of Rakhine State by the security forces and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, who have put many Muslim villages to the torch.
But authorities have denied that the security forces, or Buddhist civilians, have been setting the fires, and have blamed the insurgents instead. Nearly 30,000 Buddhist villagers have also been displaced, they say.
Despite worries that a humanitarian crisis is unfolding, Myanmar has rejected a ceasefire declared by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army insurgents to enable the delivery of aid there, saying it did not negotiate with terrorists.
The Trump administration has called for protection of civilians, and Bangladesh says all of the refugees will have to go home and it has called for safe zones in Myanmar to enable them to do so.
But China, which competes with the United States for influence in the Southeast Asian nation, said on Tuesday it backed Myanmar's efforts to safeguard “development and stability”.
The military, which ruled with an iron fist for almost 50 years until it began a transition to democracy in 2011, retains important political powers and is in full control of security.
While Suu Kyi and her civilian government have no say over security, critics say she could speak out against the violence and demand respect for the rule of law.
But anti-Rohingya sentiment is common in Myanmar, where Buddhist nationalism has surged since the end of military rule.
Suu Kyi, who the military blocked from becoming president and who says Myanmar is at the beginning of the road to democracy, could risk being denounced as unpatriotic if she were seen to be criticising a military operation that enjoys widespread public support.
The UN Security Council is to meet on Wednesday behind closed doors for the second time since the latest crisis erupted. British UN Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said he hoped there would be a public statement agreed by the council.