Aung San Suu Kyi has pledged to promote human rights in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state as the Nobel laureate made her UN debut as her country’s de facto leader.
In a scene unthinkable several years ago, the one-time opposition icon who was put under house arrest for years by a military junta took the rostrum of the United Nations on Wednesday to speak for Myanmar.
But some western supporters who long fought for Suu Kyi’s freedom have voiced dismay as, now a politician, she refuses to recognize the Rohingya – a persecuted Muslim minority in the overwhelmingly Buddhist nation.
Suu Kyi did not mention the Rohingya by name in her address. It is a contentious issue among Buddhists in Rakhine, who consider the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh and customarily call them “Bengali”.
But she pledged to back a commission led by former UN chief Kofi Annan that was recently set up to advise on Rakhine state, where thousands of Rohingya have spent four years in dire displacement camps.
“There has been persistent opposition from some quarters to the establishment of the commission,” she said, referring to protests that have met the advisers.
“However, we are determined to persevere in our endeavor to achieve harmony, peace and prosperity in the Rakhine state,” she said.
“I would like to take the opportunity to ask for the understanding and constructive contribution of the international community,” she said. “By standing firm against the forces of prejudice and intolerance, we are reaffirming our faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person.”
Before heading to New York, Suu Kyi met at the White House with Barack Obama, who agreed to scrap remaining sanctions against Myanmar.
US policymakers privately say that they recognize Suu Kyi faces intense domestic pressure in Myanmar, where the Rohingya are the target of widespread public derision and are not even considered citizens.
Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence leader Aung San, has a delicate relationship with Myanmar’s generals. In her UN address, she referred to her country mostly as Myanmar and not as Burma, the usage insisted upon by her opposition party when she was under house arrest.