Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has admitted Myanmar could have handled the Rohingya crisis better.
The country’s de facto leader has refused to take responsibility for what the UN describes as “ethnic cleansing” and faced criticism for failing to publicly condemn the Myanmar military’s actions.
Speaking at a World Economic Forum meeting in Vietnam, Ms Suu Kyi defended her country’s security forces and said all groups in Rakhine state had to be protected.
She also rejected criticism from leaders, including Prime Minister Theresa May and US vice president Mike Pence, over the convictions of two Reuters news agency reporters who had been investigating the killings of 10 Rohingya men and boys.
Ms Suu Kyi said: “There are of course ways in which, with hindsight, I think the situation could have been handled better.
“We have to be fair to all sides. The rule of law must apply to everyone. We cannot choose and pick.”
Myanmar is facing international pressure over its alleged military crackdown after Rohingya militants attacked security forces in August 2017.
A UN human rights team report has recommended senior Burmese commanders be prosecuted for genocide and other crimes.
Ms Suu Kyi has been heavily criticised for failing to speak out about the crisis which has seen nearly a million minority Muslims fleeing Myanmar into Bangladesh.
Amnesty International said security forces carried out a “targeted campaign of widespread and systematic murder, rape and burning”.
But Ms Suu Kyi said the situation was complicated by the plethora of ethnic minorities in Rakhine state, some which are at risk of disappearing entirely and do not just include Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists.
The violence in Rakhine has eased but Myanmar now has to deal with its aftermath, especially the repatriation of the Rohingyas.
She said the country is prepared to take back those who fled, but that has been complicated by two governments being involved.
Aid workers have also said it is not safe for refugees to return yet.
On the jailing of the two Reuters reporters, who are both Burmese, she challenged leaders to point out if there had been a miscarriage of justice.
Mr Pence and Mrs May condemned the verdicts and called for the journalists’ release after they were imprisoned for seven years each for allegedly possessing state secrets.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December 2017 while carrying official documents which had just been given to them by police officers.
“The case has been held in open court,” Ms 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.
She added they could appeal their sentence.
There have been calls to strip Ms Suu Kyi of her Nobel Peace Prize which she received in 1991 for her work to “establish a democratic society in which the country’s ethnic groups would cooperate in harmony”.
She spent nearly 15 years under house arrest fighting for democracy under a military junta until her release in 2010.
Her party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in the 2015 elections but she cannot be president as her late husband and children are British citizens.