Myanmar is carrying out “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims, a United Nations official has said, as stories of gang rape, torture and murder emerge from among the thousands who have fled to Bangladesh.
Up to 30,000 members of the ethnic community have abandoned their homes in Myanmar to escape the unfolding violence, the UN said, after troops poured into the narrow strip where they live earlier this month.
John McKissick, head of the UN refugee agency UNHCR in the Bangladeshi border town of Cox’s Bazar, told the BBC that troops were “killing men, shooting them, slaughtering children, raping women, burning and looting houses, forcing these people to cross the river” into Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has resisted urgent international appeals to open its border to avert a humanitarian crisis, instead telling Myanmar it must do more to prevent the stateless Rohingya minority from entering.
“It’s very difficult for the Bangladeshi government to say the border is open because this would further encourage the government of Myanmar to continue the atrocities and push them out until they have achieved their ultimate goal of ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority in Myanmar,” McKissick said.
A spokesman for Myanmar President Htin Kyaw criticised the comments.
“I would like to question the professionalism and ethics which should be followed and respected by UN staff. He should speak based on concrete and true facts, he shouldn’t make accusations,” Zaw Htay told AFP news agency.
It is not the first time ethnic-cleansing claims have been made against Myanmar.
In April 2013 Human Rights Watch said it was conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya – an accusation rejected by Thein Sein, the then president, as a “smear campaign”.
The scale of human suffering was becoming clear on Thursday, as desperate people such as Mohammad Ayaz told how troops attacked his village and killed his pregnant wife.
Cradling his two-year-old son, he said troops killed at least 300 men in the village market and gang-raped dozens of women before setting fire to around 300 homes, Muslim-owned shops and the mosque where he served as imam.
“They shot dead my wife, Jannatun Naim. She was 25 and seven months pregnant. I took refuge at a canal with my two-year-old son, who was hit by a rifle butt,” Ayaz said.
Ayaz sold his watch and shoes to pay for the journey and has taken shelter at a camp for unregistered Rohingya refugees.
Many of those seeking shelter say they walked for days and used rickety boats to cross into Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of registered Rohingya refugees have been living for decades.
The Rohingya are viewed as illegal immigrants by many in Buddhist-majority Myanmar who call them “Bengali”, even though many have lived there for generations.
Most live in the impoverished western Rakhine state, but are denied citizenship and smothered by restrictions on movement and work.
Bangladesh said on Wednesday that it had summoned Myanmar’s ambassador to express “deep concern”.
Since the latest violence flared up, Bangladesh border guards have intensified patrols and the coastguard has deployed extra ships.
Officials say they have stopped around a thousand Rohingya Muslims at the border since Monday.
Human Rights Watch said this week it had identified, using satellite images, more than 1,000 homes in Rohingya villages that had been razed in northwestern Myanmar.
Myanmar’s military has denied burning villages and even blamed the Rohingya themselves.
Rohingya community leaders said hundreds of families had taken shelter in camps in the border towns of Teknaf and Ukhia, many hiding for fear they would be sent back to Myanmar.
Police on Wednesday detained 70 Rohingya, including women and children, who they say will be sent back across the border.
|Post-destruction satellite imagery of Kyet Yoe Pyin from November 10 [HRW/Reuters]|