Aung San Suu Kyi denied the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar's Muslim minority, speaking to the BBC after the U.N. rights council agreed to investigate allegations against the army.
"I don't think there is ethnic cleansing going on. I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening," Suu Kyi said in the interview televised on Wednesday.
Suu Kyi — once globally celebrated as a heroine of democracy and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991— and her one-year-old government have faced international condemnation for the treatment of the country's Rohingya Muslims, who the government regard as "illegal" immigrants from Bangladesh.
A harsh military crackdown against the Rohingya in the coastal Rakhine state prompted the U.N. human rights council to agree last month to launch an investigation into violations against what some have called "the most persecuted minority in the world."
Earlier this month, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a flash report based on interviews with people who have fled Myanmar. The report documents mass gang-rape, killings — including of babies and young children — brutal beatings, disappearances and other serious human rights violations by the country's security forces.
Suu Kyi appeared to deny any violations by the same state security forces which had kept her under house arrest for 15 years, instead blaming the violence on supposedly inter-ethnic conflict.
"It is Muslims killing Muslims, as well, if they think they are collaborating with authorities. It is not just a matter of ethnic cleansing," she said, adding that the army was "not free to rape, pillage and torture."
"They are free to go in and fight. And of course, that is in the constitution ... Military matters are to be left to the army," she said, adding that she aimed to amend the constitution.
When she took charge of the latest stage of peace negotiations — hoping to bring an end to an almost 70-year multi-party conflict — Suu Kyi dismantled a peace center that was leading talks with several armed ethnic groups. Some observers said the closure was a mistake because it meant losing experienced negotiators who had built up trust with ethnic minority representatives.
"Ethnic leaders describe their meetings with her as like a headmistress and her students," said one former negotiator, who was briefed on the talks and whose account was broadly backed up by other observers. "She's always up high, and treats them like they are below her."
Almost 75,000 people from the persecuted minority have escaped to Bangladesh since the military launched operations in the north of Rakhine state to find Rohingya militants who reportedly raided border posts in October 2016. U.N. officials have said more than 1,000 people may have been killed, reported Reuters.