Myanmar faces mounting international pressure as Rohingya Muslims flee violence

Pressure mounts on Myanmar to end violence that has sent more than 370,000 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.

Bangladeshi prime minister visits overflowing camp housing Rohingya asylum seekers

An exhausted Rohingya woman touches the shore on Monday after crossing the border from Myanmar to Bangladesh by boat through the Bay of Bengal. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

Pressure mounted on Myanmar on Tuesday to end violence that has sent about 370,000 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.

But China, which competes for influence in its southern neighbour with the United States, said it backed Myanmar's 
efforts to safeguard "development and stability."

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.

A burnt house is seen in a village in Maungdaw in the north of Rakhine state in Myanmar on Tuesday. Rohingya fleeing the country say Myanmar military have attacked and burned their villages. Myanmar officials have claimed that Rohingya have burned their own houses and they are responding to acts of extremism. (Reuters)

"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.

Fears of humanitarian crisis

The exodus to Bangladesh shows no sign of slowing with 370,000 the latest estimate, according to a UN Refugee Agency spokesperson, up from an estimate of 313,000 on the weekend.

Bangladesh was already home to about 400,000 Rohingyas. Many refugees are hungry and sick, without shelter or clean water in the middle of the rainy season.

The United Nations said 200,000 children needed urgent support. Two emergency flights organized by the UN refugee agency arrived in Bangladesh with aid for about 25,000 refugees.

Rohingya asylum seekers stretch their hands to receive food distributed by local organizations in Kutupalong, Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi prime minister visited a camp there on Tuesday and promised temporary aid, but demanded that Myanmar 'take steps to take their nationals back.' (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

More flights are planned with the aim of helping 120,000, a spokesperson said.

Worry is also growing about conditions inside Rakhine state, with fears a hidden humanitarian crisis may be unfolding. Myanmar has rejected a ceasefire declared by ARSA to enable the delivery of aid there, saying it did not negotiate with terrorists.

But Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said Myanmar should set up safe zones to enable the refugees to go home.

"Myanmar will have to take back all Rohingya refugees who entered Bangladesh," Hasina said on a visit to the Cox's Bazar border district where she distributed aid.

The district is home to Kutupalong refugee camp. Kutupalong and another pre-existing Rohingya camp 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. 

"Myanmar has created the problem and they will have to solve it," Hasina said, adding: "We want peaceful relations with our neighbours, but we can't accept any injustice.

"Stop this violence against innocent people."

Myanmar has said those who can verify their citizenship can return, but most Rohingya are stateless.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said, "The international community should support Myanmar in its efforts to safeguard development and stability."

Pakistan called on Myanmar to stop making "unfulfilled promises."

 In a speech to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Pakistan said, "Discrimination, violence and acts of hatred are intolerable."

With files from The Associated Press