Myanmar's Suu Kyi makes first visit to crisis-hit northern Rakhine

SITTWE, Myanmar - Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrived on her first visit to conflict-battered northern Rakhine State on Thursday, an official said, an unannounced trip to an area that has seen most of its Rohingya Muslim population forced out by an army campaign.

Suu Kyi, a nobel laureate who leads Myanmar's pro-democracy party, has been hammered by the international community for failing to use her moral power to speak up in defence of the Rohingya.

Some 600,000 of the stateless minority have fled to Bangladesh since late August carrying accounts of murder, rape and arson at the hands of Myanmar's powerful army, after militant raids sparked a ferocious military retaliation.

The UN says that crackdown is likely tantamount to ethnic cleansing, while pressure has mounted on Myanmar to provide security for the Rohingya and allow people to return home.

Aerial photos show burnt out Rohingya village

  • A burned Rohingya village near Maungdaw.
  • Maungdaw is north of the Rakhine state in Myanmar.
  • Myanmar's government will manage the redevelopment of villages torched during violence in Rakhine state.
  • The violence has sent nearly half a million Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh.
  • Co-existence among the collage of ethnicities in Myanmar's Rakhine state has been ruptured - perhaps irreversibly - by the bloodshed of the last month.
  • Violence has periodically cut through the western state.
  • Communal rivalries have been sharpened by British colonial meddling, chicanery by Myanmar's army and fierce dispute over who does - and does not - belong in Rakhine.
  • But the events of August 25, when raids by Rohingya militants unleashed a swirl of violence across the north, have sunk Rakhine to new depths of hate.
  • 28 badly-decomposed bodies of Hindu men, women and children had been pulled from two mass graves in the same area.
  • An army lockdown has made it impossible to independently verify what happened in the villages of northern Rakhine.
  • The area is dominated by Rohingya Muslims who are a minority elsewhere in the mainly Buddhist country.
  • Hindus, who make up less than one per cent of Rakhine's population, accuse Rohingya of massacring them, burning their homes and kidnapping women for marriage.
  • Some 430,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh.
  • Small ethnic groups such as the Mro, Thet and Diagnet have also been caught up in the killings and chaos of the last month.
  • Last week Myanmar's leader Aung san Suu Kyi told the international community that Rohingya refugees were welcome back if they were properly "verified".
  • The Rohingya say they are a distinct ethnic group whose roots stretch back centuries.
  • Myanmar's powerful military insists they are "Bengalis"
  • who were first brought to the country by British colonisers and have continued to pour in illegally ever since.
  • Three major campaigns - in 1978, the early 90s and now - have driven Rohingya from Myanmar in huge numbers.

In addition to the state capital Sittwe, Suu Kyi is also visiting two of the epicentres of the violence, Maungdaw and Buthidaung, as part of the "one day trip," government spokesman Zaw Htay told AFP.

It is her first trip in office to northern Rakhine, which has seen some of the worst of the communal violence that has cut through the western state since 2012, severely damaging Myanmar's global reputation.

It was not clear if Suu Kyi would visit some of the hundreds of Rohingya villages torched by the army - allegedly aided by ethnic Rakhine Buddhist locals.

But "The Lady" - as she in known - did meet with Rohingya in Maungdaw, according to local media, a first for a leader keen to convince observers inside the country and abroad that the crisis has abated and reconstruction of Rakhine can begin.

The Rohingya who remain in northern Rakhine are living in fear, surrounded by hostile neighbours, who refuse to let them farm or move freely.

The UN on Thursday again called for unfettered humanitarian access to a zone still under army lockdown.

On Thursday 2,500 Rohingya arrived by land at the Bangladesh border, a sign hunger and fear is still driving people from their homes.

"The army didn't attack us but made our life very difficult,"Mohammad Zafar, 35, from a village in Buthidaung told AFP at the Bangladesh border.

"We were not paid for any work and couldn't go to markets. How long is it possible to live like that?" .

HERE FOR GENERATIONS

Suu Kyi heads a committee charged with rebuilding Rakhine.

She was joined on Thursday by businessman Zaw Zaw, one of a host of military "cronies" who thrived under junta rule and are now taking prominent roles in rebuilding the battered region.

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There are fears a carve-up of contracts in Rakhine by big business will further divorce the Rohingya from their land.

She says the Rohingya who have fled are now welcome back, if they meet contested "verification" criteria for re-entry to Myanmar.

The Rohingya are loathed in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship and denigrated as illegal "Bengali" immigrants.

Their legal status is at the crux of communal tensions, with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists adamant that Rohingya are foreign interlopers.

A Rohingya resident who has remained in Maungdaw town appealed to Suu Kyi to reconsider foisting a controversial national verification card (NVC) on the minority.

The card grants them limited rights of residence in Myanmar, but does not recognise them as an ethnic group with citizenship.

The Rohingya say it is a bureaucratic attempt to erase their identity and force a shaky legal status onto them in a region where many claim generations of ancestry.

"We can not do anything with this NVC card, so we do not want to receive it," the resident said, requesting anonymity fearing reprisals.

"We are not Bengalis from Bangladesh, we are Rohingya living here for generations." Observers say Suu Kyi has chosen not to criticise the army in fear of a backlash from a powerful institution that controls all security matters.

The plight of the Rohingya garners little sympathy inside Myanmar, making a defence of the minority a politically toxic cause.

The Rohingya have packed into makeshift camps on a poor, already overcrowded slip of border land inside Bangladesh.

Aid groups say the risk of major outbreaks of disease is high, while they struggle to deliver food and basic supplies to the unprecedented number of refugees.

Myanmar's army denies abuses in its campaign to flush out Rohingya militants whose attacks in late August sparked the latest round of a festering communal crisis.