The Rohingya in Myanmar are facing a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, the United Nations commissioner for human rights said on Monday in UN's toughest indictment yet of a military crackdown in Rakhine state that has forced hundreds of thousands of the Muslim community to flee into Bangladesh.
“We have received multiple reports and satellite imagery of security forces and local militia burning Rohingya villages, and consistent accounts of extrajudicial killings, including shooting fleeing civilians,” Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
He said restricted access to the area made it difficult to verify allegations but “the situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
The military's operation in northern Rakhine was launched in response to series of attacks on security posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) on August 25. Rohingya who have fled the area report widespread burning of their homes, looting and killing of civilians.
So far 313,000 have taken refuge in Bangladesh, according to the latest reports, and tens of thousands of others are believed to be on their way Prior to the attacks there were just over one million of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Mr Al Hussein raised concerns over reports that Myanmar authorities had begun to lay landmines along the border with Bangladesh and would require Rohingya seeking to return to provide “proof of citizenship”.
The minority community is largely denied citizenship by Myanmar, whose authorities consider them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The Myanmar government said it was treating the Arsa assaults as a “terrorist” incident and denies that its troops are targeting civilians. It claims the Rohingya are burning their own properties.
However Mr Al Hussein condemned the security operation, saying it was disproportionate to the insurgent attacks last month in which 12 security personnel and one immigration official were killed.
“I call on the government to end its current cruel military operation, with accountability for all violations that have occurred, and to reverse the pattern of severe and widespread discrimination against the Rohingya population,” he said.
The UN's top rights official has previously suggested that reprisals following a similar set of attacks by Arsa last October likely amounted to crimes against humanity.
But the scale of the recent exodus and extent of the burnings vastly exceed those of last year.
On Sunday, Bangladesh's foreign minister said what was occurring amounted to genocide.
"The international community is saying it is a genocide. We also say it is a genocide," A H Mahmood Ali said after briefing diplomats in Dhaka.
Two diplomats at the meeting told Agence France-Presse the minister had said as many as 3,000 people may have been killed in the latest round of violence.
The wider international community is however unlikely to recognise what is occurring as genocide as to do so would be seen as placing an obligation on other nations to intervene.
But Myanmar is facing increasing international condemnation for what is occurring.
On Friday the Dalai Lama joined the growing list of Nobel laureates to voice their concern. "Those people who are sort of harassing some Muslims, they should remember Buddha," the Tibetan spiritual leader said when asked about the crisis.
"He would definitely give help to those poor Muslims. So still I feel that. So very sad."
And while international attention has focused on the violence and Rohingya fleeing the country, rights groups have also raised concerns about the impact of the Myanmar authorities' refusal to allow aid groups access to those who remain in Rakhine, where many were already on the brink of starvation before the latest violence.
International aid activities in much of Rakhine state have been suspended, leaving approximately 250,000 people without food, medical care and other vital humanitarian assistance.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Myanmar said that even before the recent violence, food security indicators and child malnutrition rates in Maungdaw township were already above emergency thresholds.
"The humanitarian catastrophe that Burma's security forces have created in Rakhine state has been multiplied by the authorities' unwillingness to provide access to humanitarian agencies," said Philippe Bolopion, deputy director for global advocacy at Human Rights Watch in a statement on Monday.
“The United Nations, Asean, and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation need to ramp up the pressure on Burma and provide more assistance to Bangladesh to promptly help Rohingya and other displaced people.”
On Sunday Arsa said it was declaring a “temporary cessation of offensive military operations” in northern Rakhine for one month – until October 9 - “in order to allow humanitarian actors to access and respond to the humanitarian crisis” there.