YANGON/COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) - Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi said on Thursday her government was doing its best to protect everyone in the strife-torn state of Rakhine, as the estimated number of Rohingya Muslims who have fled to Bangladesh leapt by 18,000 in one day, to 164,000.
Suu Kyi did not refer specifically to the exodus of the minority Rohingya, which was sparked by insurgent attacks on Aug. 25 and an army counter-offensive, but said her administration was trying its best to take care of all citizens.
Western critics have accused Suu Kyi of not speaking out for the Rohingya, some 1.1 million people who have long complained of persecution and are seen by many in Buddhist-majority Myanmar as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
Some have called for the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991 as a champion of democracy to be revoked.
“We have to take care of our citizens, we have to take care of everybody who is in our country, whether or not they are our citizens,” Suu Kyi said in comments to Reuters Television’s Indian partner, Asian News International.
“Of course, our resources are not as complete and adequate as we would like them to be but, still, we try our best and we want to make sure that everyone is entitled to the protection of the law,” she said during a visit by Indian Prime Narendra Modi to Yangon.
Suu Kyi on Tuesday blamed “terrorists” for “a huge iceberg of misinformation” on the strife in the northwestern state of Rakhine but made no mention of the Rohingya who have fled.
She has come under increasing pressure from countries with Muslim populations, and this week U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned there was a risk of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar that could destabilise the region.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department on Thursday voiced its concern “following serious allegations of human rights abuses including mass burnings of Rohingya villages and violence conducted by security forces and also armed civilians”.
“We urge all in Burma including in the Rakhine state to avoid actions that exacerbate tensions there,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters.
The U.S. ambassador has met Myanmar officials to discuss “allegations of violence conducted by both the security forces and civilians” and access for humanitarian groups, she said.
Myanmar has said it is negotiating with China and Russia to ensure they block any Security Council censure over the crisis.
Suu Kyi said the situation in Rakhine has been difficult for many decades and so it was “a little unreasonable” to expect her administration, which has been in power for 18 months, to have resolved it already.
Myanmar says its forces are fighting a legitimate campaign against terrorists responsible for a string of attacks on the police and army since last October. Officials blame Rohingya militants for killing non-Muslims and burning their homes.
“We need to wipe out the threat of the terrorism in those regions,” Ko Ko Hlaing, a presidential adviser of the previous government said on Thursday at a forum arranged by military-owned media to discuss the crisis.
He said rehabilitation and development are important and the citizenship issue must be settled, but the first priority needed to be “the detoxification of dangerous ideology of extremism”.
Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, on Thursday posted what he said were “photos of Bengalis setting fire to their houses”.
The pictures of several sword-wielding women wearing headscarfs and men in Islamic prayer caps, or “Kufi”, setting a house on fire, which were published in one of the country’s leading newspapers, were also shared widely by the military.
“These photos showing that Bengalis are torching their houses emerge at a time when international media have made groundless accusations of setting fire to Bengali houses by the government security forces and the killings of Bengalis,” said the Eleven Media daily
But the photographs sparked controversy on social media with many people who identified themselves as Myanmar Muslims saying they appeared staged.
Rights monitors and Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh say the Myanmar army has been trying to force them out of Rakhine state with a campaign of arson and killings.
Boatloads of exhausted Rohingya continued to arrive in the Cox’s Bazar region of neighbouring Bangladesh on Thursday. The latest estimate by U.N. workers operating there put arrivals in just 13 days at 164,000, up from 146,000 from the day before.
U.N. officials in Bangladesh now believe the total number of refugees from Myanmar since Aug. 25 could reach 300,000, said Dipayan Bhattacharyya, who is Bangladesh spokesman for the World Food Programme (WFP).
The surge of refugees - many sick or wounded - has strained the resources of aid agencies and communities already helping hundreds of thousands from previous spasms of violence in Myanmar. Many have no shelter, and aid agencies are racing to provide clean water, sanitation and food.
“Many refugees are stranded in no-man’s land between the border with Myanmar,” medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said in a statement.
“Even prior to the most recent influx, many Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh lived in unsafe, overcrowded and unhygienic conditions, with little protection from the elements.”
It said more nurses, midwives and doctors had been brought in to tackle violence-related injuries, severely infected wounds and obstetric complications.
(Corrects title of U.N. Secretary General in 8th paragraph, dropping extraneous words ‘Security Council’)
Additional reporting by Wa Lone in Yangon, Nurul Islam and Danish Siddiqui in Cox's Bazar and Mohammad Zargham in Washington; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Shri Navaratnam