SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The United Nations estimates that more than a quarter million Rohingya Muslims have fled their homes in Myanmar in just the last couple of weeks. They're escaping what are reported to be arson attacks and mass killings by that country's security forces. Myanmar's de facto civilian leader has labeled reports of such atrocities as fake news that helps terrorists.
That leader is a symbol of democracy around the world - Aung San Suu Kyi, who defied her country's military rulers and spent almost 15 years under house arrest, during which she preached nonviolent resistance and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Now, some of her fellow Nobel laureates criticized her silence on the oppression of the Rohingya.
We're joined in our studios now by Derek Mitchell, who is the former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, used to be known as Burma. Mr. Ambassador, thanks so much for being with us.
DEREK MITCHELL: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: What do you believe events are like in this part of the country called Rakhine State?
MITCHELL: It's a dire situation. Clearly, the pictures speak for themselves. You see mostly women and children crossing the border in absolute desperation. So, you know, that in and of itself, the humanitarian situation is absolutely tragic. I think the broader situation, Rakhine State needs to be understood a little bit better because that is extraordinarily complex in order to actually work to solve this problem.
SIMON: Do you have any doubt that what a fair man or woman would call atrocities are being committed?
MITCHELL: Well, I think the information is difficult to get. There is not the access that people need to evaluate. Actually, what is going on is still, I think, under some dispute. And what we need, frankly, is access and clarity.
SIMON: What do you say to those people who expect on Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out in defense of Rohingya Muslims?
MITCHELL: She has spoken out to a degree. I think much of the criticism of her has been a bit too much in the international media and the international community. I certainly don't think it's illegitimate to ask that she be more vocal in her compassion for this really beleaguered population, but she inherited an absolutely awful situation of Rakhine State. And, in fact, the current crisis was spurred by an attack by a militant group acting in the name of the Rohingya. So the military had made the response. She doesn't control the military. And so she's in a really, really difficult spot that I think we need to understand even as we criticize.
SIMON: Does she turn her back, though, when she refers to the suffering of Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State as fake news?
MITCHELL: I think she's referring to many reports. I think her communications - to be very honest, I think she's been - and this is ironic, given her background as an eloquent spokesperson for democracy when she was in the opposition - but her communication has been quite poor on the international front. She doesn't realize how she comes across. We have to understand the context here.
You have a vast majority of the people of Myanmar who believe the Rohingya are alien, that they're illegal immigrants and they should not be part of the national fabric of the country. And, in fact, they believe them to be aggressive threats to their national security. We may not accept that narrative, but we have to understand she's facing those headwinds. And as she deals with it, she has to tread a little bit carefully to ensure that she stays on the right side of her own people.
SIMON: The plight of the Rohingya has become a large issue in countries like Turkey, places like Chechnya and the Afghan Taliban, as a matter of fact. Is there something Western governments should do to try and redress that image?
MITCHELL: Well, it's a very damaging and dangerous development. It is a cause celebre in the Middle East. Even - I heard - folks in Syria would ask, what's happening with the Rohingya? As if they don't have enough problems of their own. That kind of level of attention certainly can inspire some of the worst actors to focus on Myanmar in a way that they otherwise would not.
SIMON: What are the differences between Aung San Suu Kyi as a dissident, symbol of peace and Aung San Suu Kyi who is now the de facto ruler of Myanmar?
MITCHELL: Well, there's always a difference between when you're in an opposition and when you're in power. The responsibilities of power grave in any country. And she faces a tremendous amount of challenges. I mean, we all knew when we were in the Obama administration and touting the elections of 2015 that that didn't end any of the challenges of this very complex place. It just meant they were transferred to Aung San Suu Kyi and her party.
SIMON: Derek Mitchell, who was ambassador to Myanmar under President Obama, now with the Albright Stonebridge Group. Thanks so much for being with us.
MITCHELL: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.