Suu Kyi visits Myanmar region torn by Rohingya conflict

Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives in Sittwe, Rakhine state, Myanmar, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. Suu Kyi made her first visit as Myanmar's leader Thursday to the conflict-torn region where more than half a million Rohingya Muslims have fled state-led violence that has spiraled into Asia's worst refugee crisis in decades. (AP Photo)

YANGON, Myanmar — Aung San Suu Kyi made her first visit as Myanmar’s leader today to the conflict-torn region where more than half a million Rohingya Muslims have fled state-led violence that has spiraled into Asia’s worst refugee crisis in decades.

Her visit to Rakhine state comes as Suu Kyi is under intense international scrutiny for her response to the exodus, which the U.N. has called ethnic cleansing, and as her government said it is working on a plan to repatriate those who fled to Bangladesh.

Suu Kyi arrived in the state capital, Sittwe, in the morning and headed to restive northern Rakhine where many Rohingya villages were located. During a 2015 election campaign, she visited southern Rakhine, where there hasn’t been much conflict.

“The state counselor just arrived but she is heading to Maungdaw, northern Rakhine, with the state officials,” said Tin Maung Swe, a deputy director of the Rakhine government, using Suu Kyi’s official title.

Government spokesman Zaw Htay would not release Suu Kyi’s plans for the trip until later because of security concerns.

More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since Aug. 25, when security forces in Buddhist-majority Myanmar began what they called “clearance operations” in response to deadly attacks on police outposts by insurgents.

The campaign has included the burning of Rohingya villages and alleged widespread rights violations.

Fleeing Rohingya have described arson, rape and shootings by Myanmar soldiers and Buddhist mobs that left them no option but to make the dangerous and sometimes deadly journey through jungles and by sea to Bangladesh.

The exodus has slowed at some points but has not stopped.

This morning, at least 2,000 terrified and starving Rohingya huddled in rice paddy fields near one border crossing on the Naf river. They had waited for more than 24 hours for permission to enter Bangladesh and spent the night in the muddy fields.

The global image of Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate, has been damaged by the crisis and she has come under intense criticism to do more to end the violence and condemn those responsible.

Several fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners have publicly condemned Suu Kyi for what they see as her apparent indifference to the plight of the Rohingya people.

Though Suu Kyi has been the de facto head of Myanmar’s civilian government since her party swept elections in 2015, the former political prisoner is limited in her control of the country by a constitution written by the military junta that ruled Myanmar for decades. The military has effective veto power over all legislation and controls key ministries including those overseeing security and defense.

The military is in charge of operations in northern Rakhine, and ending them is not up to Suu Kyi.

Even when Suu Kyi has spoken on the issue, she has drawn criticism.

In a September speech, her first public comments after the current crisis began, she asked for patience from the international community and suggested the refugees were partly responsible, saying more than half of the Rohingya villages had not been destroyed by the violence.