Aung San Suu Kyi said Tuesday she does not fear global scrutiny over the Rohingya crisis, pledging to hold rights violators to account and to resettle some of the 410,000 Muslims who have fled army operations in her country.
In an address timed to pre-empt likely censure of Myanmar at the UN General Assembly in New York - delivered entirely in English and aimed squarely at an international audience - she called for patience and understanding of the unfurling crisis in her "fragile democracy".
But she offered no solutions to what the UN calls "ethnic cleansing" in Rakhine state, where army-led operations have burned Muslim Rohingya from their homes, and refused to point the finger at the men in uniform.
Rights group Amnesty International said the Nobel peace laureate was "burying her head in the sand" over documented army abuses and claims of rape, murder and the systematic clearing of scores of villages.
Inside Myanmar, supporters say the 72-year-old leader lacks the authority to rein in the military, which ran the country for 50 years and only ceded limited powers to her civilian government.
"She is trying to claw back some degree of credibility with the international community, without saying too much that will get her in trouble with the (military) and Burmese people who don't like the Rohignya in the first place," said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.
- Repatriation pledge -
Communal violence has torn through Rakhine state since Rohingya militants staged deadly attacks on police posts on August 25.
An army-led fightback has left scores dead, and sent hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya fleeing mainly Buddhist Myanmar into Bangladesh.
In her 30-minute speech Suu Kyi reached out to critics who have condemned her failure to speak up for the stateless Rohingya.
Myanmar stood ready "at any time", she said, to repatriate refugees in accordance with a "verification" process agreed with Bangladesh in the early 1990s.
"Those who have been verified as refugees from this country will be accepted without any problems," she added.
In less than a month just under half of Rakhine's one-million-strong Rohingya minority has poured into Bangladesh, where they now languish in overcrowded refugee camps.
It was not immediately clear how many would qualify to return.
But the subject of their claims to live in Myanmar is at the heart of a toxic debate about the Muslim group, who are denied citizenship by the state and considered to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi's repatriation pledge "is new and significant", said Richard Horsey, an independent analyst based in Myanmar, explaining it would in principle allow for the return of those who can prove residence in Myanmar - rather than citizenship.
- No more violence? -
Suu Kyi insisted army "clearance operations" finished on September 5.
But AFP reporters have seen homes on fire in the days since then, while multiple testimonies from refugees arriving in Bangladesh suggests those operations have continued.
Rights monitors and Rohingya refugees say the army - often flanked by ethnic Rakhine mobs -systematically attacked Muslims and then torched their villages.
Without blaming any single group, Suu Kyi promised to punish anyone found guilty of abuses "regardless of their religion, race or political position".
Myanmar's army acts without civilian oversight and makes all security decisions, including its notorious scorched earth counter-insurgency operations.
Amnesty International, which once tirelessly campaigned for Suu Kyi's release from house arrest, pilloried the speech saying she and her government are "burying their heads in the sand" about the horrors unfolding in Rakhine.
Suu Kyi said the "majority of Muslims in the Rakhine state have not joined the exodus... more than 50 percent of the villages of Muslims are intact".
Around 170 Rohingya villages have been razed, the government admits. Rights groups say satellite evidence shows the damage is more widespread.
Rakhine is in lockdown, and independent verification is impossible.
- Siege mentality -
While stories of weary and hungry Rohingya civilians streaming into Bangladesh have dominated global headlines, there is little sympathy for them among Myanmar's Buddhist majority.
Around 30,000 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists as well as Hindus have also been displaced -- apparent targets of the August 25 attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
Many in Myanmar reject the existence of a Rohingya ethnicity and insist they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Loathing for the Rohingya has brought the public, including prominent pro-democracy activists, into an unlikely alignment with an army that once had them under its heel.
A siege mentality has emerged in Myanmar with the UN, international NGOs and foreign media the focus of anger for apparent pro-Rohingya bias.
Many Facebook users changed their profile picture on Tuesday to carry a banner with a photo of 'The Lady' and a message reading "We stand with you Daw Aung San Suu Kyi" -- using an honorific.
Her speech was warmly welcomed in Myanmar.
"She told the real situation to the world on behalf of Myanmar people," Yu Chan Myae, 27, told AFP.