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International relations

Suu Kyi avoids setting timeline for Rohingya return

Myanmar leader says relationship with the army 'not that bad'

SINGAPORE -- Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi said on Tuesday that the country remains ready to receive returning Rohingya refugees, but avoided giving a timeline and reminded that part of the responsibility rests with Bangladesh. 

Suu Kyi spoke in Singapore ahead of the first anniversary of a military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar's turbulent Rakhine State that forced an exodus into Bangladesh and a major humanitarian crisis.

Myanmar's civilian leader said her country would work with its neighbor and the United Nations for the return of the displaced people, but avoided setting a timeline for completion. "It is very difficult for us to put a time frame on it by ourselves unilaterally because we have to work with Bangladesh," she said.

"Returnees have to be sent back by Bangladesh -- we can only welcome them at the border," Suu Kyi said, answering a question after a speech organized by a Singapore national think tank, the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute. "Bangladesh would also have to decide how quickly [it wants] the process to be completed. We have been ready to receive them."

Almost 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled into Bangladesh since last August after an attack by an insurgent group triggered a harsh military response. The continuing humanitarian crisis in temporary settlements in Cox's Bazar has produced the world's fastest-growing concentration of refugees. The international community has pressed Myanmar for progress, but repatriation efforts have so far been slow. 

Suu Kyi said Myanmar has worked hard on the refugee crisis. She thanked Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general who died on Saturday, for heading an advisory commission to establish lasting peace and stability in Rakhine State, and said 81 out of 88 recommendations made by his expert panel have been implemented. "We have already mapped out potential sites for the resettlement of the returnees," she said, adding that the administration has granted U.N. officials access to selected villages.

Suu Kyi raised issues. "The danger of terrorist activities, which was the initial cause of the events leading to a humanitarian crisis in Rakhine, remains real and present today," she said, but did not identify alleged culprits. "Unless these security challenges are addressed, the risk of inter-communal violence will remain. It is a threat that has great consequences, not just for Myanmar, but also for other countries in our region and beyond," she said.

Responding to questions, the 73-year-old leader showed a relaxed side, smiling and speaking lightheartedly. A student asked if there is likely to be another coup in Myanmar. "I don't worry unduly on such matters.," Suu Kyi said. "We have to be pragmatic. Our relationship with the army is not that bad, you know. Don't forget we have three members in the cabinet who are military men, generals. They are all rather sweet."

The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who struggled for more than two decades to promote national democratization, said her government is working on constitutional amendments to "complete the transition from military rule to democracy."

The constitution at present reserves 25% of seats in national and state legislatures for the military. "We have only 75% of rights but 100% of the responsibilities -- we have got to change that," she said. "We must remove unelected representatives from legislatures." She said this needed to be achieved through negotiations "step by step, keeping in mind our needs for national reconciliation."

"We don't want to encourage the kind of revolutions that turned the country upside down. We will be patient but we will be persistent," she said, admitting that the path is not easy.

U Thaung Tun, the chairman of the Myanmar Investment Commission, accompanied Suu Kyi to promote further investment from the city state. Singapore was the second-largest investor in Myanmar in 2017.

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