Dhaka/Yangon — The UN has appealed for help for nearly 400,000 Muslims from Myanmar who have fled to Bangladesh, with concern growing that the number could keep rising, unless Myanmar ends what critics denounce as "ethnic cleansing".
The Rohingya are fleeing from a Myanmar military offensive in the western state of Rakhine that was triggered by a series of guerrilla attacks on August 25 on security posts and an army camp in which about a dozen people were killed.
The UN has called for an intensification of relief operations to help the refugees, and a much bigger response from the international community.
"We urge the international community to step up humanitarian support and come up with help," Mohammed Abdiker, director of operations and emergencies for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), told a news conference in the Bangladeshi capital. The need was "massive", he said.
The violence in Rakhine and the exodus of refugees is the most pressing problem Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has faced since becoming national leader in 2016.
On Wednesday UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the UN Security Council urged Myanmar to end the violence, which he said was best described as ethnic cleansing.
The government of Buddhist-majority Myanmar rejects such accusations, saying it is targeting "terrorists".
Numerous Rohingya villages in the north of Rakhine have been torched but authorities have denied that security forces or Buddhist civilians set the fires. They blame the insurgents, and say 30,000 non-Muslim villagers were also displaced.
Smoke was rising from at least five places on the Myanmar side of the border on Thursday, a Reuters reporter in Bangladesh said. It was not clear what was burning or who set the fires.
"Ethnic cleansing" is not recognised as an independent crime under international law, the UN Office on Genocide Prevention says, but it has been used in UN resolutions and acknowledged in judgments and indictments of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
A UN panel of experts defined it as "rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups".
The crisis has raised questions about Suu Kyi’s commitment to human rights and could strain relations with western backers supporting her leadership of Myanmar’s transition from decades of strict military rule and economic isolation.
Critics have called for her to be stripped of her Nobel prize for failing to do more to halt the strife, though national security remains firmly in the hands of the military.
Suu Kyi is due to address the nation on Tuesday.
China, which competes with the US for influence in Myanmar, endorses the offensive against the insurgents and deemed it an "internal affair", Myanmar state media said.
"The counterattacks of Myanmar security forces against extremist terrorists and the government’s undertakings to provide assistance to the people are strongly welcomed," the Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper quoted China’s ambassador, Hong Liang, as telling government officials.
But at the UN in New York, China set a different tone, joining a Security Council expression of concern about reports of violence and urging steps to end it.
The Security Council met on Wednesday to discuss the crisis and later "expressed concern about reports of excessive violence … and called for immediate steps to end the violence in Rakhine, de-escalate the situation, re-establish law and order, ensure the protection of civilians … and resolve the refugee problem".
Bangladesh says the refugees will have to go home and has called for safe zones in Myanmar. Myanmar says safe zones are unacceptable.
The IOM’s Abdiker declined to say how many refugees he thought might end up in Bangladesh. "The number may rise to 600,000, 700,000, even one 1-million if the situation in Myanmar does not improve," he said.