Pressure mounted on Myanmar on Tuesday to end violence that has sent more than 300,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh, with the United States calling for protection of civilians and Bangladesh urging safe zones to enable refugees to go home.
The government of Buddhist-majority Myanmar says its security forces are fighting Rohingya militants behind a surge of violence that began on Aug. 25, and they are doing all they can to avoid harming civilians. It said about 400 people have been killed in the fighting, the latest to rock Rakhine State in western Myanmar.
The top United Nations human rights official denounced Myanmar on Monday for conducting a “cruel military operation” against Rohingya, branding it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
The United States said the violent displacement of the Rohingya showed security forces in Myanmar, also known as Burma, were not protecting civilians.
Washington has been a staunch supporter of Myanmar’s transition from decades of harsh military rule that is being led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
“We call on Burmese security authorities to respect the rule of law, stop the violence, and end the displacement of civilians from all communities,” the White House said in a statement.
No one with the Myanmar government was immediately available for comment, but the Foreign Ministry said shortly before the U.S. statement was issued that Myanmar was also concerned about the suffering and that its forces were carrying out their legitimate duty to restore order in response to acts of extremism.
“The government of Myanmar fully shares the concern of the international community regarding the displacement and suffering of all communities affected by the latest escalation of violence ignited by the acts of terrorism,” the ministry said in a statement.
Unverified reports from refugees and rights groups paint a picture of widespread attacks on Rohingya villages in the north of Rahkine State by the security forces and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. Authorities deny that, and say nearly 30,000 Buddhist villagers have also been displaced, fleeing to towns to the south.
A Rohingya villager in Myanmar told The Associated Press that security forces had arrived Monday in the village of Pa Din village, firing guns, setting new fires to homes and driving hundreds of Rohingya to flee.
“People were scared and running out of the village,” the villager said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety.
Myanmar police disputed that, saying the houses were burned by terrorists they called Bengalis. That term is used derisively by many in Myanmar to describe the Rohingya, who they say migrated illegally from neighbouring Bangladesh, though many Rohingya families have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Attacks by a Rohingya insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), on police posts and an army base in the north of Rakhine State on Aug. 25 provoked the military counter-offensive that refugees say is aimed at pushing Rohingya out of the country.
A similar but smaller wave of attacks by the same insurgents last October also led to what critics said was a heavy-handed response by the security forces that sent 87,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.
On Sunday, Myanmar rebuffed a ceasefire declared by ARSA to enable the delivery of aid to thousands of displaced and hungry people in the north of Rakhine State, declaring simply that it did not negotiate with terrorists.
Refugee camp struggling
Bangladesh is seeking help as it struggles to cope with the latest influx of more than 300,000 Rohingya, who have joined more than 400,000 others already there.
On Tuesday, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited the Kutupalong refugee camp, near the border town of Ukhiya in Cox’s Bazar district.
Hasina demanded that Myanmar “take steps to take their nationals back,” and assured temporary aid until that happened.
“Myanmar has created the problem and they will have to solve it,” she said, adding: “We want peaceful relations with our neighbours.”
Myanmar has said those who can verify their citizenship can return, but most Rohingya are stateless.
Kutupalong and another pre-existing Rohingya camps in Bangladesh are already beyond capacity. Other new arrivals are staying in schools, or huddling in makeshift settlements with no toilets along roadsides and in open fields, The Associated Press reported.
Basic resources are scarce, including food, clean water and medical aid.
Bangladesh has said it would free 810 hectares of land for a new camp in Cox’s Bazar district, to help shelter newly arrived Rohingya.