In first U.N. address as leader, Suu Kyi defends efforts on Rohingyas

September 21, 2016 4:09 PM EDT

Myanmar's Minister of Foreign Affairs Aung San Suu Kyi addresses the 71st United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan, New York, U.S. September 21, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

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By David Brunnstrom

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - In her first address to the U.N. General Assembly as national leader, Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi defended her government's efforts to resolve a crisis over treatment of the country's Muslim minority.

Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize winner who has been criticized for doing too little to address the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar's Rakhine state, said the government did not fear international scrutiny, but asked "for the understanding and the constructive contribution of the international community."

"We are committed to a sustainable solution that will lead to peace, stability and development for all communities within" Myanmar, she said.

"Our government is taking a holistic approach that makes development central to both short- and long-term programs aimed at promoting understanding and trust."

Suu Kyi pointed to the establishment of an advisory commission for Rakhine state chaired by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, with a mandate covering basic rights and security issues.

Suu Kyi said there had been "persistent opposition from some quarters" to the establishment of the commission, but the government would persevere in its efforts to achieve peace in Rakhine.

"By standing firm against the forces of prejudice and intolerance, we are reaffirming our faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person."

Suu Kyi told a subsequent event at the Asia Society in New York that Myanmar was only at the start of its road to democracy, given that 25 percent of parliamentary seats were still held by the unelected members of the military and peace needed to be affirmed with all armed groups.

She said the main priority was to create jobs and the government would have to ensure investment was attracted to less-developed ethnic minority areas.

Suu Kyi said the government was trying to bring progress as well as peace to Rakhine state.

"The Rakhines are poor, the Muslims, they are poor, and we want everybody there to be safe and secure. What we have been trying to do is to find a way of relieving communal tension and putting and end to communal strife," she said.

Increased freedom of speech since the military stepped back from direct rule in 2011 has allowed for the unleashing of long-held anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar.

Around 125,000 Rohingya remain confined in temporary camps after waves of deadly violence in 2012 between Buddhists and Muslims, when more than 100 people were killed.

The Rohingya have long been persecuted, being seen by much of the majority Buddhist population as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in Myanmar for generations. Most were stripped of their ability to vote in last year's election, which brought Suu Kyi to power as de facto leader.

In Washington last week, Suu Kyi urged businesses to invest in Myanmar as a way to advance its democratic transition. U.S. President Barack Obama also pledged to lift longstanding sanctions on the Southeast Asian country.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; editing by Grant McCool, G Crosse)

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