Global outrage over Myanmar's treatment of its Rohingya Muslims is being fuelled by "a huge iceberg of misinformation", Aung San Suu Kyi said Wednesday, after the UN led calls for her government to end violence that has forced 146,000 to flee to Bangladesh.
Rohingya refugees have poured into Bangladesh, fleeing a massive security sweep in Rakhine state by Myanmar forces following a series of deadly ambushes there by Rohingya militants on August 25.
Suu Kyi's government has faced growing international condemnation for the army's response as refugees arrive with stories of murder, rape and burned villages at the hands of soldiers.
But in her first public comments since last month's ambushes, she said sympathy for the Rohingya was being generated by "a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists".
The comments were made in a statement from her office following a call with Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been particularly critical of Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya, dubbing it a "genocide".
But Suu Kyi said her administration was "defending all the people" in Rakhine.
The statement highlighted a now-deleted tweet last week by Turkey's deputy prime minister Mehmet Simsek showing a series of gruesome pictures of bodies he wrongly claimed were of dead Rohingya.
Supporters of both the Rohingya and Myanmar's government have track records of posting emotive images that are not from the conflict.
Myanmar's Rohingya are the world's largest stateless minority and have lived under apartheid-like restrictions on their movement and citizenship for years.
They largely eschewed violence, but in October a new militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army launched a series of ambushes on border police, prompting a massive army-led crackdown.
More than 200,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since October.
That includes 146,000 in the last two weeks, piling huge pressure on an impoverished neighbour that already hosted 400,000 Rohingya who had fled Myanmar over the past four decades.
"The number is growing every day," UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan told AFP. "It's a growing humanitarian crisis."
An AFP reporter on Tuesday witnessed scores of new refugees wading through neck-deep water as they crossed the river Naf into Bangladesh after lengthy jungle treks.
"I walked seven days with my family members, carrying my 90-year-old mother on my back," exhausted refugee Ali Ahammad, 38, told AFP.
- Landmine injuries -
Bangladesh summoned the Myanmar ambassador on Wednesday to protest the planting of landmines along the countries' shared border, after a series of explosions maimed fleeing refugees.
During the meeting, Bangladesh officials "expressed concern at the reported laying down of anti-personnel land mine(s) close to the ... border by Myanmar security forces", a statement from the foreign ministry in Dhaka said.
Bangladeshi border guards have said they heard large explosions this week and saw refugees with injuries they say were caused by landmines.
One woman lost both her legs and had to be carried into Bangladesh, where she is receiving treatment.
Myanmar has not commented on the reports. A senior Bangladeshi official said Dhaka believed Myanmar forces were planting the landmines to stop the Rohingya returning to their villages.
"We have information that they have planted landmines or explosives in the close vicinity of the Bangladesh-Myanmar border," the official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
- Overstretched camps -
The violence has also hit Rakhine's Buddhist and Hindu populations, with nearly 27,000 people fleeing in the opposite direction and some saying Rohingya militants had murdered their kin.
Aid agencies have had to end food distribution in northern Rakhine because of the fighting. UNICEF said it was unable to reach 4,000 children in the towns of Maungdaw and Buthidaung it had previously treated for malnutrition.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who spent years under house arrest when Myanmar was under military rule, has come under international pressure over her refusal to speak out against the treatment of the Rohingya or rein in the army.
Analysts say Suu Kyi's obduracy despite pressure from rights groups is a sop to the country's powerful army and surging Buddhist nationalism.
Amnesty International described her statement Wednesday as "unconscionable".
"In her first comments on the crisis, instead of promising concrete action to protect the people in Rakhine state, Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be downplaying the horrific reports coming out of the area," said its crisis response director Tirana Hassan in a statement.
The Rohingya are widely dismissed in Myanmar as illegal immigrants even though many have lived there for generations, making supporting them unpopular.
Suu Kyi also has little control over the army, which has a long track record of rights abuses.
But detractors say Suu Kyi is one of the few people with the mass appeal and moral authority to swim against the tide on the issue.
Earlier this year United Nations investigators said Myanmar's military has used "devastating cruelty" in its security crackdown in what might constitute ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.
Suu Kyi's government has dismissed those allegations and refused to grant visas to UN officials charged with investigating reports of atrocities.