HANOI, VIETNAM - In the face of global condemnation, Myanmar's leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday said that the handling of Rohingya Muslims, 700,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh amid a brutal military campaign, could have been better, but still defended security forces from charges of civilian atrocities.
Myanmar's army is accused of mass rape, killings and setting fire to thousands of homes in the aftermath of an August 2017 attack by Rohingya militants on security outposts. A report issued two weeks ago by a specially appointed U.N. human rights team recommended prosecuting senior Myanmar commanders for genocide and other crimes.
"There are of course ways in which with hindsight I think the situation could have been handled better," Aung San Suu Kyi said, responding to questions during a one-on-one discussion at the World Economic Forum's regional meeting in Hanoi.
Rohingya refugees take part in a protest at the Kutupalong refugee camp to mark the one-year anniversary of their exodus from Myanmar, in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Aug. 25, 2018.
'Fair to all sides'
She still defended Myanmar security forces, saying that all groups in western Rakhine state had to be protected.
"We have to be fair to all sides," Aung San Suu Kyi said. "The rule of law must apply to everyone. We cannot choose and pick."
Aung San Suu Kyi said the situation was complicated by the myriad ethnic minorities in the area, some of which are at risk of disappearing entirely and which include not just the Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists.
Although the violence in Rakhine state has eased, Myanmar has to deal with its aftermath, especially the repatriation of the Muslim Rohingya who fled and the underlying causes of tension that makes them targets of discrimination and repression in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi said that Myanmar is prepared to take those who fled back, but their return has been complicated by the fact that two governments are involved.
Aid workers say conditions for a safe and orderly return of the refugees have not been met.
Detained Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo sit beside police officers as they leave court in Yangon, Myanmar, July 9, 2018. The two were charged with breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
Aung San Suu Kyi also rejected criticism over the show-trial conviction last week of two Reuters news agency reporters who helped expose extrajudicial killings of 10 Rohingya men and boys.
The reporters were both sentenced to seven years' imprisonment on charges of possessing state secrets.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is among those who have condemned the verdicts and called for the journalists' release.
"The case has been held in open court," Aung San Suu Kyi said. "If anyone feels there has been a miscarriage of justice I would like them to point it out."
"They were not jailed because they were journalists. They were jailed because ... the court has decided they have broken the Official Secrets Act," she said.
Aung San Suu Kyi noted that the two can appeal their sentences.
The lawyers for the journalists have said they will do whatever they can to get their clients freed. The two men testified that they had been framed by the police. The case has drawn worldwide attention as an example of how democratic reforms in long-isolated Myanmar have stalled under Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian government, which took power in 2016.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said that Aung San Suu Kyi was mistaken in saying the case was handled in accordance with the "rule of law."
"She fails to understand that real 'rule of law' means respect for evidence presented in court, actions brought based on clearly defined and proportionate laws, and independence of the judiciary from influence by the government or security forces," he said in a statement. "On all these counts, the trial of the Reuters journalists failed the test."