International desk – Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday visited the restive Rakhine state from where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh in the face of brutality carried out by Burmese army.
Media reports say the Burmese leader visited the regional capital Sittwe and other towns during an unannounced one-day trip.
This was her first visit ever since the Myanmar military launched the crackdown against suspected Muslims insurgents leading to the largest ever refugee crisis in Asia in decades.
Her visit to Rakhine state comes as Suu Kyi is under intense international scrutiny for her response to the exodus, which the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing, and as her government said it is working on a plan to repatriate those who fled to Bangladesh.
After her arrival in the state capital in the morning, Suu Kyi headed to 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.
An estimated 607,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh after the military crackdown began on 25 August, according to United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
The unrest in troubled Rakhine was sparked by alleged attacks on police stations across the state, blamed on a newly emerged militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa).
Scores of people were killed in the ensuing military crackdown, and there are widespread allegations of villages being burned and Rohingya being driven out, according to a BBC report.
The military in Myanmar (also called Burma) says its operations are aimed at rooting out militants, and has repeatedly denied targeting civilians. Survivors, witnesses, refugees and journalists have contested the army claims.
It was not immediately clear whether Suu Kyi would also visit any Rohingya villages.
Suu Kyi boarded a military helicopter in Sittwe on Thursday morning local time. She was accompanied by about 20 people.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has recently outlined a new plan to end the conflict and bring more development to Rakhine.
She said this would be done by the civilian government, in partnership with local business groups and foreign donors.
However, international aid agencies are still not being allowed full access to the affected areas.
In a major speech in September, Suu Kyi condemned rights abuses – but did not blame the army or address allegations of ethnic cleansing.
The Rohingya, a stateless mostly Muslim minority in Buddhist-majority Rakhine, have long experienced persecution in Myanmar, which says they are illegal immigrants.