BANGKOK — For the first time since Myanmar’s military unleashed violence against Rohingya Muslims in August, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who heads the civilian government, on Thursday visited the state where the atrocities have been taking place.
The United Nations and international rights groups have laid out evidence of an ethnic cleansing campaign across the northern part of the state, Rakhine. They say that hundreds, at least, have been killed, and that the majority of the Rohingya population has been driven into neighboring Bangladesh by the military’s use of arson, execution and rape.
The Myanmar government, however, says it is fighting Rohingya Muslim “terrorists” who launched attacks on security outposts, killing at least a dozen people. Members of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s cabinet maintain that not a single Rohingya has been killed by the Myanmar military.
There is little overlap between the international and domestic narratives.
One of the places Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi visited during her day trip to northern Rakhine was Taung Pyo, on the border with Bangladesh. The rice-growing hamlet serves as a case study in how perceptions of the violence in Rakhine have diverged.
In September, Setara Begum, a 28-year-old mother of four boys and one girl, waded across a stream separating a no man’s land from Bangladesh. Wringing the water out of her dress and setting a child in the mud on the riverbank, she told me she had been forced to flee her home in Taung Pyo after the security forces surrounded the village in late August, ordering them to “run, run, run.”
She did, an infant in one hand, a toddler gripping the other. Miraculously, all of her children made it to Bangladesh. But her husband, who had been tilling the fields when the soldiers came, was missing. As she ran, she saw a child facedown in a rice paddy. The last Ms. Setara saw of her village was an orange glow burning from the area where her house had been.
“If the color of the fire was in a dress it would be beautiful,” she said, looking down at her muddy clothes, “but it made me very fearful when I saw it.”
A Human Rights Watch investigation documented that parts of Taung Pyo were still burning in mid-September as Myanmar soldiers patrolled the village, despite the fact that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said that all “clearance operations” against militants had ceased on Sept. 5.
While Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as a political prisoner in 1991, controls the country’s civilian government, she has no authority over Myanmar’s military.
Refugees from Taung Pyo, known in the Rohingya dialect as Tumbru, said that there were almost no Rohingya left in the community — they had either bolted to Bangladesh, been killed by gunfire or been arrested. Another villager, Mohamed Aktar, said he counted at least three bodies as he fled the area in late August.
“Maybe more,” he said. “I ran so fast I could not count well.”
Bangladesh has accused Myanmar’s military of laying land mines in the area. One woman who tried to cross back to Taung Pyo, in order to investigate the damage to her home, stepped on a mine and lost most of her leg. She was treated in a hospital in Bangladesh.
The Myanmar military said that any land mines found in the area were the work of Rohingya insurgents. The state news media, meanwhile, have focused on the plight of ethnic Rakhine who had fled their homes and took refuge in a police post near Taung Pyo.
The vast majority of residents in northern Maungdaw township, which includes Taung Pyo, are Rohingya Muslims. But the civil servants there — teachers, nurses, administrators — tend to be ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
Stories in the local news media focused on how rice, beans and cooking oil had been delivered to Rakhine Buddhists sheltering in Taung Pyo. The stranded community was eventually airlifted to safety.
By contrast, for weeks, international aid groups were unable to deliver aid to Rohingya isolated in Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships, the three worst-affected areas. Some Rohingya said by cellphone earlier this week that they still had not gotten adequate food supplies.
The local news media published photographs of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday meeting Rohingya in another village in Maungdaw. Before her sat rows of men wearing pristine white prayer caps.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly said that the international community should try to understand why some Rohingya have decided to stay in Rakhine, rather than flee to Bangladesh.
“I hope everything will go fine as local villagers handle the rebuilding process,” Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi told the residents of Pan Taw Pyin village. “We all have to try our best to live peacefully.”
But critics say that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, in the most charitable interpretation of her actions, has allowed herself to be blinded to the realities of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine.
“Just as important as finally visiting affected areas is the need for Aung San Suu Kyi to actually understand what happened there. And that requires her to break the military cordon around the information she’s receiving and start listening to other sources,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“Some scales need to fall from her eyes about northern Rakhine State, and one hopes that this could be the beginning of that process,” he said.
So far, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s governing party, the National League for Democracy, has not sent any investigators to the refugee camps in Bangladesh to hear the stories of the more than 600,000 Rohingya who have fled.
The Myanmar government has said it is willing to repatriate those Rohingya who have flocked to Bangladesh over the past two months, if they can prove they used to live in Rakhine.
But many Rohingya escaped their burning villages without any documents, so it is not clear how they will be able to prove their former residency. Most Rohingya have been stripped of their citizenship by the Myanmar government, making them stateless.
On Tuesday, U Zaw Htay, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesman, reiterated that Myanmar was ready to start repatriation immediately, but then accused Bangladesh of dragging its feet in order to wheedle money out of a sympathetic international community.
“I think the reason Bangladesh doesn’t want to send refugees back to Myanmar might be because they announced that they would build the world’s biggest refugee camp,” he said. “That’s why they don’t want to send refugees back to Myanmar, because they are afraid they will lose international donations.”
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated when a photograph of Maung Thar Aung in a Rakhine State camp was taken. It was September, not August.