SINGAPORE/SITTWE, Myanmar (Reuters) - Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi accused the international community on Friday of stoking resentment between Buddhists and Muslims in the country’s northwest, where an army crackdown has killed at least 86 people and sent 10,000 fleeing to Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi appealed for understanding of her nation’s ethnic complexities, and said the world should not forget the military operation was launched in response to attacks on security forces that the government has blamed on Muslim insurgents.
“I would appreciate it so much if the international community would help us to maintain peace and stability, and to make progress in building better relations between the two communities, instead of always drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment,” Suu Kyi told Singapore state-owned broadcaster Channel News Asia during a visit to the city-state.
“It doesn’t help if everybody is just concentrating on the negative side of the situation, in spite of the fact that there were attacks against police outposts.”
The violence in the northwest poses the biggest challenge so far to Suu Kyi’s eight-month-old government, and has renewed international criticism that the Nobel Peace Prize winner has done too little to help the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority.
Soldiers have poured into the north of Rakhine State, close to the frontier with Bangladesh, after attacks on border posts on Oct. 9 that killed nine police officers. Humanitarian aid has been cut off to the area, which is closed to outside observers.
Myanmar’s military and the government have rejected allegations by residents and human rights groups that soldiers have raped Rohingya women, burned houses and killed civilians during the operation.
Suu Kyi’s remarks came as a commission led by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan arrived in the state, where ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims have lived separately since clashes in 2012 in which more than 100 people were killed.
Despite often having lived in Myanmar for generations, most of the country’s 1.1 million Rohingya are denied citizenship, freedom of movement and access to basic services such as healthcare and education.
The U.N.’s human rights agency said this week that abuses suffered by the Rohingya may amount to a crimes against humanity, repeating a statement it first made in a June report.
The Rohingya are not among the 135 ethnic groups recognized by law in Myanmar, where many majority Buddhists refer to them as “Bengalis” to indicate they regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
In northern Rakhine, one of the poorest parts of the country, Muslims outnumber the ethnic Rakhine population.
“In the Rakhine, it’s not just the Muslims who are nervous and worried,” said Suu Kyi. “The Rakhine are worried too. They are worried about the fact that they are shrinking as a Rakhine population, percentage-wise.”
U.N. officials said this week more than 10,000 people have fled the recent fighting to Bangladesh.
There are continuing reports of people fleeing across the river border in flimsy boats, bringing accounts of razed villages, uprooted communities and separated families.
Still, Suu Kyi said the government has “managed to keep the situation under control and to calm it down”.
Suu Kyi identified Rakhine as one of the areas that required special attention from the outset of her term, nominating Annan in August to lead a taskforce to come up with long-term solutions to the problems of the divided state.
The six Myanmar and three foreign commissioners, on their second trip to Rakhine, met community leaders, local government representatives and Muslims from camps for displaced people in the state capital of Sittwe.
“There have been security actions there, but security actions should not impede humanitarian access to those in need,” Annan told reporters after the meetings, referring to the north.
“We have discussed it and I expect progress to be made. Some agencies have been able to go in, but there’s a great deal of needs, and I expect to see further progress in the next few days or so.”
The U.N. has said some 30,000 people have been internally displaced by the fighting and, while nearly 20,000 have had their deliveries of aid restored, around 130,000 are still not getting food and other assistance they had been receiving prior to the outbreak of violence.
Suu Kyi bowed to weeks of international pressure late on Thursday to appoint a commission to investigate the original attacks and allegations of human rights abuses in the military operation that followed.
However, she raised eyebrows with her pick for the chief of the team, vice president Myint Swe, who headed the feared military intelligence under former junta leader Than Shwe.
Myint Swe, a close confidant of the former junta supremo, was the chief of special operations in Yangon when Than Shwe ordered a crackdown on anti-junta protests led by Buddhist monks in 2007, known as the Saffron Revolution.
Writing by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Paul Tait and Alex Richardson