YANGON — State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi met members of the Buddhist and Muslim communities in northern Rakhine State last week on her first visit to the troubled region since taking office in 2015.
The previously unannounced trip to Rakhine on November 2 included visits to Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, where attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in late August triggered a military crackdown that has seen more than 600,000 Muslims flee to Bangladesh and created a humanitarian crisis.
The state counsellor travelled by helicopter from the state capital Sittwe to Maungdaw, where her itinerary included separate meetings with Buddhist and Muslim villagers and members of the border guard police, reports said.
She urged villagers to cooperate with government reconstruction and resettlement efforts and the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine, which she established last month and leads.
Reuters reported an account of the meeting with Muslim villagers from Ms Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a group that advocates for the rights of Rohingya.
“She only said three things to the people – they should live peacefully, the government is there to help them, and they should not quarrel among each other,” Lewa said, citing a source at the meeting.
AFP said the state counsellor’s meeting with Muslims in Maungdaw was “a first for a leader keen to convince observers inside the country and abroad that the crisis has abated and reconstruction can begin”.
During the trip, on which the State Counsellor was accompanied by Rakhine State Chief Minister U Nyi Pu and some of the leading business people supporting her UEHRD initiative, she also visited a camp being prepared for refugees returning from Bangladesh.
Aung San Suu Kyi has pledged to allow the return of refugees who can verify they were residents of Myanmar.
Her visit to northern Rakhine, which had a Muslim majority population before the latest crisis began, came as the United Nations said refugees must not only be allowed to return but should be given full citizenship.
“These people cannot remain stateless because this statelessness exposes them to discrimination and abuse, as has been the case in the past,” Mr Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters at UN headquarters on November 2.
Rakhine will figure highly in talks during a visit to Myanmar next week by the United States Secretary of State, Mr Rex Tillerson.
His talks in Nay Pyi Taw on November 15 would focus on the “humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State and US support for Burma’s democratic transition”, Tillerson’s spokesperson said after the State Department announced the visit on November 2.