SYDNEY – Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi defended herself on Wednesday against criticism that she should be doing more to defend a Muslim minority group that has been targeted by sectarian violence in parts of the predominantly Buddhist nation.
"I have always defended those whose human rights have been attacked," Suu Kyi said in response to a question during a ceremony in her honor at Sydney's Opera House. "But what people want is not defense but condemnation. They're saying why am I not condemning this group or why am I not condemning that group. ... I am not condemning because I have not found that condemnation brings good results. What I want to do is to achieve national reconciliation."
Over the past two years, sectarian violence in Myanmar has left more than 240 people dead and forced another 240,000 to flee their homes, most of them members of the minority Rohingya community.
Suu Kyi, who became known as a human rights heroine when she fought against the nation's previous military regime, has been criticized for not responding more aggressively to the issue. She declined to meet with an Organization of Islamic Cooperation delegation that recently visited Myanmar to look into the violence.
Suu Kyi, who is in Australia on a five-day trip to Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, also disagreed with descriptions of the violence as "ethnic cleansing."
"These kinds of expressions do not help. It does intensify fears and hatred," she said during her Opera House appearance. "Yes, there has been violence and there is continuing violence and there is great anxiety in our country that these outbreaks of communal tension and strife should come to an end. But when you use terms like ethnic cleansing — which I think is a little extreme — it just plays into the hands of extremists."
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has persevered for decades in promoting democracy. She and her National League for Democracy party were frozen out of politics by the military regime that governed until 2011, but last year she and several dozen party members won parliamentary seats.
A clause in the army-dictated constitution disqualifies her from becoming president, but the 68-year-old is seeking the constitutional changes that would allow her to run.
She received a standing ovation from a packed crowd inside the Opera House and was presented with two honorary doctorate degrees — one each from the University of Sydney and the University of Technology in Sydney.
Suu Kyi is to make a number of speeches and meet with Prime Minister Tony Abbott during her Australian trip.