As international criticism mounts on Myanmar over a scorched-earth military campaign targeting its oppressed Rohingya Muslim minority, the country’s democracy icon and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi finds herself between a rock and a hard place.

International rights groups this week took their gloves off in condemning the revered Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s ambivalent response to the escalating violence and allegations of widespread rights abuses by soldiers.

And on Thursday, a UN official accused Naypyidaw of seeking the “ultimate goal of ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority in Myanmar” as the crisis deepened, with tens of thousands in the northwestern Rakhine state displaced and at least 86 killed.

But some experts say the consternation aimed at Suu Kyi is misguided as she wields little power over the military. A democratically elected government, which she leads, took power only this year after more than five decades of junta rule.

The fresh bout of military-backed violence against the Rohingya was triggered as soldiers swooped in to lay siege to the area to hunt down perpetrators of what it says were coordinated attacks against security forces in October.

The UN recognises the Rohingya as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. They are denied citizenship despite tracing their roots to Myanmar for generations.

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Tens of thousands of Rohingya are interned in squalid displacement camps after sectarian violence in 2012 involving the state’s majority Rakhine people, who are Buddhist.

In the latest round of violence, activists say soldiers raped dozens of Rohingya women and torched the homes of civilians.

The government last week dismissed the claims as “fabrications”. The troubled zone has been closed to human rights monitors and most journalists.

“The problem is that the Myanmar government apparently is more interested in playing these deflect and denial games than they are about allowing a credible UN-assisted investigation to get on the ground in these areas and ascertain the facts,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

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“So far it looks like the Myanmar government has given their military carte blanche to do whatever they want in these areas, and the results have been these torched villages and allegations of extremely serious rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture, extrajudicial executions and rapes,” Robertson said.

He said establishing facts was difficult because “the [army] is systematically denying access to these areas for UN agencies, NGO humanitarians, national and international media and, of course, groups like Humans Rights Watch”.

Other observers – while acknowledging the persecution of the Rohingya – urge critics not to jump to conclusions about Suu Kyi’s complicity in the violence.

The 71-year-old spent most of the 1990s and 2000s under house arrest after the military junta refused to recognise the landslide victory of her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in a 1990 general election.

Ties between Suu Kyi and the military have thawed in the transition to civilian rule since 2011, but she was still barred from becoming president after the NLD won last year’s election.

She is state counsellor, but her leadership of the NLD makes her the country’s de facto leader. Htin Kyaw, a key Suu Kyi confidante, is president.

“Yes, there’s a justified sense that someone revered as a human rights icon should be doing far more to stop this violence,” said Mark Canning, a former British ambassador to Myanmar.

“But equally there needs to be greater recognition, including among NGOs, of the scale of the challenges she faces and the headway that’s been made,” he said.

Khin Mar Mar Kyi, an Oxford University-based Myanmar researcher, said rights groups and the media were missing the nuances of sectarian tensions in their criticism of the Suu Kyi administration.

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Mar, who was in the troubled region this week, said “lack of access to Rakhine state as well as lack of understanding of the tension between Rakhine people and the people of Myanmar” was distorting international perceptions of the crisis.

“Rakhine is the most marginalised minority among Myanmese ethnic groups. Many Rakhine also suffer… we witnessed [Rohingya] refugee camps have better living conditions [compared to the Rakhine people],” she said.

She added: “Western media often discusses only the Rohingya but never included [the Rakhine people]. This one-sided humanitarian passion harms the issue and fuels more conflict in Rakhine state.”

Aid workers meanwhile say pinning blame is the last thing on their minds.

Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Southeast Asia, said an estimated 160,000 vulnerable people in the troubled area who had been getting humanitarian help before the fresh outbreak of violence on October 9 had had that help suspended.

“We believe these people are now in desperate need of food, shelter and medical care, and have appealed for urgent humanitarian access to determine and meet their needs,” Tan said.

In Malaysia and Indonesia – Southeast Asia’s two largest Muslim-majority countries – concerned citizens and politicians are calling on their governments to ratchet up pressure on the Myanmese administration.

“Political crisis in one state can become a shared crisis… States must issue condemnations and show concern,” Nurul Izzah Anwar, a Malaysian opposition legislator, said.

Other observers called on the high-level commission on Rakhine state – led by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and set up by Suu Kyi in August – to speed up the delivery of recommendations to ease tensions between the two sets of people.

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“Easy solutions aren’t obvious… economic development in this very poor state where everyone is vying for jobs and resources could play a role in helping reduce the communal animosity and tensions,” said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia expert at the Washington-based think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

“The Rohingya will need access to jobs, schools, medical services, and freedom to move to improve their lot and something has to be done to address the whole citizenship issue for the Rohingya,” Hiebert said.