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Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has rejected allegations that an “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims is taking place in Burma.
Speaking in an interview with the BBC on Thursday, the democracy icon responded to questions about a spate of communal clashes which have rippled through the country and appear to be increasingly targeting the country’s Muslim minority.
“It’s not ethnic cleansing,” she said. “What the world needs to understand [is] that the fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but on the side of the Buddhists as well.”
Almost 140,000 Rohingya Muslims, who are denied citizenship in Burma, have been stranded in displacement camps in Arakan state since two bouts of clashes with local Buddhists last year.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in April accused security forces and extremist groups of committing crimes against humanity in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the minority.
The violence has since spread to other parts of Burma, claiming 250 lives, including those of 20 Muslim children who were hacked to death by a Buddhist mob in Meikhtila in March.
The unrest has been linked to the rise of an extremist Buddhist movement, called 969, which advocates for religious segregation in Burma. Its lead proponent, monk Wirathu, has likened Muslims to “mad dogs” and often been described as a hate preacher.
“I condemn any movement that is based on hatred and extremism,” said Suu Kyi, but insisted that it is the government’s responsibility to hold Wirathu to account.
“Instead of asking us, the members of the opposition what we feel about it … you should ask the present government of Burma what their policy is.”
Suu Kyi also dismissed allegations that Muslims have borne the brunt of the violence, adding that “many, many” Buddhists are confined to refugee camps in Burma and abroad.
“The reaction of Buddhists is also based on fear,” she said. “I think [you] will accept that there’s a perception that global Muslim power is very great, certainly that is a perception in many parts of the world and in our country too.”
The Nobel laureate, who spent nearly two decades under house arrest, has come under fire for her perceived failure to condemn abuses against the Rohingyas, who are considered to be among the world’s most persecuted minorities.
Suu Kyi is currently on a diplomatic tour of the UK, where she has met with Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. On Thursday, she travelled to Northern Ireland for a brief visit, where she met with politicians and local school children.
The opposition leader, who was released from house arrest in 2010, currently holds a seat in parliament and has expressed hopes of running for the presidency in 2015.
Many analysts say she is reluctant to speak up for Muslims in Burma, because she fears losing her core electorate in the Buddhist-dominated country.
“Burma now needs real change,” she told the BBC. “We need to make our people confident that we truly are going to be a democratic society.”