As Rohingya flee Myanmar, leader Suu Kyi skips UN meeting

JULHAS ALAM
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FILE - In this Friday, Aug. 11, 2017, file photo, Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers an opening speech during the Forum on Myanmar Democratic Transition in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. Suu Kyi has canceled plans to attend the U.N. General Assembly, with her country drawing international criticism for violence that has driven at least 370,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims from the country in less than three weeks. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo, File)

COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh (AP) — Facing global condemnation for weeks of violence that has driven minority Rohingya to flee — a crisis U.N. officials have described as "ethnic cleansing" — Myanmar's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, pulled out of this month's U.N. General Assembly meetings.

The president's office said Wednesday that Suu Kyi would miss the assembly's ministerial session, which opens Sept. 19 and runs through Sept. 25, to address domestic security issues.

The U.N. Security Council condemned the violence that has driven some 380,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims to flee to safety in neighboring Bangladesh. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters that ethnic cleansing was taking place against Rohingya in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

The term "ethnic cleansing" is defined as an effort to rid an area of an unwanted ethnic group — by displacement, deportation or even killing.

Security Council members called for "immediate steps to end the violence," de-escalate the situation and ensure civilian protections in what many Rohingya see as their homeland.

The statement was the first made by the U.N.'s most powerful body in nine years addressing the precarious situation Rohingya face in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, Britain's U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said, calling it "an important first step."

Suu Kyi's appearance at last year's General Assembly was a landmark: her party had just won elections in 2015, replacing a military-dominated government and ushering in an era of democratic reform.

But even then, she faced criticism over Myanmar's treatment of Rohingya Muslims, whose name she did not utter. Many in Myanmar instead use the term "Bengalis" and insist they are people who migrated illegally from Bangladesh.

Rohingya have faced decades of persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, and are denied citizenship despite centuries-old roots in the Rakhine region.

Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who lived for years under house arrest when Myanmar was ruled by a military junta, has faced a torrent of criticism since the crisis erupted.

Myanmar has blamed the violence on Rohingya insurgents who attacked police outposts in Rakhine state on Aug. 25, inciting the military to respond with what it called "clearance operations" to root out the rebels.

Many Rohingya villagers who have flooded into Bangladesh say Myanmar soldiers shot indiscriminately, burned their homes and warned them to leave or die. Others have said they were attacked by Buddhist mobs.

Suu Kyi is not Myanmar's president — her official titles are state counselor and foreign minister — but she effectively serves as leader of the Southeast Asian nation though she does not control the military.

Presidential office spokesman Zaw Htay said that, with President Htin Kyaw hospitalized, second Vice President Henry Van Tio would attend this week's U.N. meeting.

"The first reason (Suu Kyi cannot attend) is because of the Rakhine terrorist attacks," Zaw Htay said. "The state counselor is focusing to calm the situation in Rakhine state. There are circumstances. The second reason is, there are people inciting riots in some areas. We are trying to take care of the security issue in many other places. The third is that we are hearing that there will be terrorist attacks and we are trying to address this issue."

He said Suu Kyi would give a speech next week covering the same topics she would have addressed at the United Nations. He did not say if that included the violence in Rakhine state.

The violence has left hundreds dead and set off a refugee exodus that has overwhelmed Bangladesh, with thousands of Rohingya flooding into the country by land and sea every day.

They've arrived hungry and traumatized. Many need urgent medical care for violence-related injuries, severe infections or childbirth, aid groups say.

"The women who are coming for check-ups all have a terrified and exhausted look," said Sumaya, a midwife at the Nayapara refugee camp working in association with the U.N. population fund. "We keep hearing stories from them of walking through jungles and across hills for days without food, their children carried over their shoulders. They've lost their homes."

Zaw Htay said that, out of 471 "Bengali" villages in three Rakhine townships, 176 were now completely empty while at least 34 more were partially abandoned.

He said there were at least 86 clashes through Sept. 5, but none since — suggesting that security forces had succeeded with efforts to stabilize the region "to a point."

The government blames Rohingya for setting fire to their own homes, but journalists who visited the region found evidence that raised doubts about those claims.

On Wednesday, dozens of foreign diplomats and aid officials visited heaving refugee camps in the Bangladeshi border district of Cox's Bazar, and called on Myanmar to find a lasting solution for the Rohingya to live in peace.

"They need to have their own country," said Italian Ambassador to Bangladesh Mario Palma, adding that Myanmar must face the issue and "give citizenship to these people."

Thousands were still streaming into the country on Wednesday. Some had paid smugglers for passage on packed wooden boats to beaches at Shah Porir Dwip. Others were walking for days through jungles or wading through the monsoon-swollen Naf River.

At least 86 people have drowned when boats capsized in the river, according to police in near the border town of Teknaf, where nine bodies were recovered from a capsizing Tuesday night. At least dozens more have died after capsizings at sea.

Two existing refugee camps were packed beyond capacity, with many new arrivals huddling in makeshift shelters along roads or in open fields. Aid groups were struggling to provide enough food, clean water and medical aid.

Near the camp of Balukhali, some were setting up tents made of bamboo and plastic along hillsides muddy from days of rain. Children walked uphill to capture rainwater before it spilled into the teeming settlements below.

The head of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees said humanitarian assistance would increase "very, very quickly." Asked why the response has been slow, Filippo Grandi alluded to difficulties working in Bangladesh, but said he hoped this will change as the scale of the crisis becomes more apparent.

It is the Myanmar government's "responsibility to ensure that security returns to Rakhine," Grandi told The Associated Press at the Stockholm Security Conference in Sweden.

Bangladesh already was housing some 500,000 Rohingya who fled earlier flashes of violence including anti-Muslim riots in 2012. It pledged this week to free land for a new camp to cope with new arrivals.

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Associated Press journalists Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and David Keyton in Stockholm, Sweden, contributed to this report.