Jacinda Ardern has offered New Zealand’s help to Myanmar just a few days after the country’s de facto leader was stripped of a major humanitarian award.
On Wednesday, Ardern met Myanmar State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, where she raised concerns over the persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, but also offered assistance for those affected.
Ardern said the 15-minute bilateral meeting, on the sidelines of Singapore’s ASEAN and East Asia Summit (EAS), was a chance for her to directly state the concerns New Zealand had already publicly raised.
The issue was top of the agenda during last year’s regional meetings, and Suu Kyi continues to come under fire for human rights abuses committed against the Rohingya people.
The two discussed the current situation on the ground in Rakhine, and the need for security and development.
“We, of course, share the concern of the international community around what has happened in Rakhine State, and the ongoing displacement of the Rohingya,” Ardern said following the meeting.
The comments did not come as a surprise to Suu Kyi, with Ardern saying her counterpart was aware of the feelings of the international community: “It’s been shared loud and clear.”
But New Zealand also raised the country’s willingness to assist, and help find a resolution.
While New Zealand would always take a stand on human rights issues – and raised them “continually and consistently” in this case – it was always quick and willing to help, she said.
The pair discussed development assistance to improve the wellbeing, and standard of living, of people who remained in Rakhine State. This is a conversation Ardern would continue with her Foreign Minister Winston Peters.
The second meeting between the pair – the first was during last year’s APEC – comes two days after Amnesty International stripped Suu Kyi of the Ambassador of Conscience Award, in light of what the organisation referred to as “the Myanmar leader’s shameful betrayal of the values she once stood for”.
“Today, we are profoundly dismayed that you no longer represent a symbol of hope, courage, and the undying defence of human rights,” Amnesty International’s Secretary General Kumi Naidoo said in a letter to Suu Kyi.
She has also been stripped of the US Holocaust Museum’s Elie Weisel award and Freedom of the City awards, which were revoked by Edinburgh, Oxford, Glasgow and Newcastle.
While in Singapore, Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Suu Kyi was “trying to defend the indefensible”.
But Ardern said she did not detect any defence from Suu Kyi during their meeting.
And US Vice President Mike Pence also had firm words for Suu Kyi during the pair’s meeting in Singapore.
“This is a tragedy that has touched the hearts of millions of Americans. The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse.”
Suu Kyi was brief in her remarks, saying each country knew their own situation best. “So we are in a better position to explain to you what is happening and how we see things panning out.”
In August, the UN released a report detailing the military crackdown with genocidal intent, which has the huge numbers of Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh. Many are now living in refugee camps.
The military retains a powerful political position in Myanmar, under the country’s constitution. This is something Suu Kyi has raised in the past.
While she continues to come under fire from the international community, especially during summits, like those this week, her power to stop the atrocities may be limited.
“There’s no doubt that the situation is complex, incredibly complex,” Ardern said.
“But for international actors it’s all about making a position on those human rights issues heard and then seeing what we can do to facilitate support.”