An estimated 47,500 of Myanmar’s one million Rohingya have fled towards Bangladesh in the past week, the United Nations said on Thursday, as Britain’s ambassador to the UN urged Aung San Suu Kyi to “set the right tone” to de-escalate tensions and the EU raised the spectre of inter-communal violence.
Latest UN figures showed 27,500 Rohingya had made it across the border since Friday last week, an increase of almost 10,000 on the previous day's figures. Another 20,000 were estimated to be stuck in no-man’s land between the two countries, as fighting between Myanmar security forces and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) militant group continued.
Others lost their lives attempting to escape. Bangladesh coastguards on Thursday found the bodies of 17 Rohingya, many of them children, who drowned when their boats capsized in choppy waters crossing from Myanmar.
While the conflict is worse in the north of the state, fears were growing for those in other areas as the European Union reported that “increasing intimidation of aid workers” over recent weeks was hampering the delivery of support in central Rakhine and putting lives at risk. It also highlighted increasing hate speech on social media.
“The biggest risk is that violence becomes inter-communal and spreads,” the EU’s European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Operation warned in a Wednesday report.
The scale of the current exodus — which began after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army launched deadly attacks on security posts in the early hours of August 25 — is far greater than the one that followed similar attacks last October. Myanmar's security forces responded to those attacks with brutal clearance operations which the UN later said likely amounted to crimes against humanity and possible ethnic cleansing.
Between last October's attacks by Arsa and those on Friday last week, around 87,000 of the mainly stateless Muslim minority crossed into Bangladesh.
The latest attacks by Arsa — deemed a terrorist organisation by the Myanmar government — came just hours after an advisory commission led by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan had announced its recommendations on how to help solve long running tensions in Rakhine. The attacks were widely condemned by international governments and agencies who predicted they would spark a repeat of last year’s clearance operations and civilian casualties.
And as the conflict continues, reports suggest increasing numbers of non-Rohingya civilians are falling victim to killings and arson attacks carried out by Arsa. As with reports involving attacks against the Rohinyga community, however, this information is very hard to verify as the affected area is in virtual lockdown.
Britain raised concerns about the crisis on Thursday at a closed-doors meeting of the UN Security Council. Afterwards, UK ambassador to the UN Matthew Rycroft said there were still many “hugely supportive” allies of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the de facto leader of Myanmar's civilian-led government. The longtime pro-democracy campaigner and Nobel peace laureate has faced condemnation from some international quarters for failing to speak out against abuses and the ongoing oppression of the Rohingya.
But, Mr Rycroft added: "We look to her to set the right tone and to find the compromises and the de-escalation necessary in order to resolve the conflict for the good of all the people in Burma."
So far, barring an initial statement condemning the Arsa attacks on the day they occurred, Ms Suu Kyi has made no official comments on the ongoing violence. Despite removing her state counsellor title from its Facebook page, Ms Suu Kyi's information committee continues to post graphic images of non-Muslim civilian casualties and statements linking international aid organisations to Arsa.
On Thursday, UN ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel described as “absurd” claims that aid agencies related to the US government were supporting terrorism. His comments came after the government released more pictures of World Food Programme food packets they said had been found in Arsa camps.
The WFP said it takes food diversions very seriously and has asked the government to provide further information to help it trace where the parcels were originally sent. Additional information is yet to be provided.
A spokesman for the Myanmar government could not be contacted for a response.