UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has "a last chance" to halt the army offensive that has forced tens of thousands of Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh. "The tragedy will be absolutely horrible" unless she acted now, Guterres told BBC's HARDtalk ahead of UN General Assembly that will feature the Rohingya refugee crisis, one of the fastest growing in recent years.
The UN at last on September 16, has warned that offensive against the Rohingyas, most of who are Muslims, while Myanmar is 90 per cent Buddhist – could amount to ethnic cleansing.
The UNSG said, Suu Kyi had a last chance to stop the brutal crackdown during her address to the nation tomorrow. "If she does not reverse the situation now, then I think the tragedy will be absolutely horrible, and unfortunately then I don't see how this can be reversed in the future."
Some 409,000 Rohingyas entered Bangladesh till September 10 seeking refuge in the face of a military crackdown against them in Myanmar, said the latest report. Of them, 229,000 Rohingyas are living in new makeshift settlements at Ukhia and Kutupalong in Cox’s Bazar, while 159,000 moved into the makeshift camps set up by the Rohingyas prior to the influx that began on August 25. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) published the report with latest figures on September 15.
Some 21,000 Rohingyas are living with the local host communities, but they are moving to other sites, said the report prepared and updated by the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG), an umbrella network of smaller humanitarian assistance agencies led by the IOM. In its observations, ISCG said biometric registration by the Department of Immigration and Passports and local administration is ongoing, with crowds of arrivals waiting in line to be registered.
Aid agency Save the Children expressed fear that lives of refugees could be lost amid shortage of food, shelter, water and basic hygiene support in the makeshift camps of Cox's Bazar. It said many people are arriving hungry, exhausted and with no food or water, having left their homes in fear of their lives. Save the Children has called for more international funding for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
The number of Rohingya children taking shelter in Bangladesh may reach 600,000 by the end of the year, it said, highlighting the scale of humanitarian crisis triggered by violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. In a statement issued on September 17, Save the Children’s Country Director in Bangladesh Mark Pierce said many people having left their homes in fear of their lives are arriving hungry, exhausted and with no food or water putting their lives on another jeopardy. Bangladesh authorities, UN agencies and NGOs have been struggling to provide food, shelter, water and medicine to so many people in such a short period of time.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has expressed deep concern over the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, calling for more funds to help the displaced Rohingyas. The ICRC, which is engaged in extending all kinds of necessary assistance to Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar of Bangladesh and in Rakhine state, said sufferings of the ethnic minority beggar description. The International Red Cross is scaling up operations in Myanmar and Bangladesh, including in border areas.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, analysing photographic and satellite images, said security forces and vigilante mobs are carrying out a scorched-earth policy in Rakhine, burning down entire Rohingya villages and shooting at people as they try to flee. The rights groups say the atrocity is a targeted campaign to push the Rohingya people out of Myanmar, bearing the hallmarks of “ethnic cleansing”.
The UN too denounced the “brutal security operation” against Rohingyas in Rakhine State as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Talking to the BBC on September 16, the UNSG reiterated that the Rohingyas should be allowed to return home. He said it was clear that Myanmar's military "still have the upper hand" in the country, putting pressure "to do what is being done on the ground" in Rakhine.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent many years under house arrest in the junta-run Myanmar, is now facing growing criticism over the Rohingya issue. She will not attend the UN General Assembly in New York, and has claimed that the crisis is being distorted by a "huge iceberg of misinformation". She said tensions were being fanned by fake news promoting the interests of terrorists.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the latest attacks, Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar, has called for President U Htin Kyaw to convene a meeting of the 11-member National Defence and Security Council (NDSC). Tatmadaw wants the NDSC, on which it controls six seats, to exercise its authority to declare a state of emergency in northern Rakhine and place the area under martial law, reported Frontier Myanmar. The Tatmadaw's policy for Rakhine calls for the application of the 1982 Citizenship Law. If the law was applied to Muslims living in northern Rakhine's Maungdaw Township, the vast majority could face the prospect of being declared illegal immigrants and sent to refugee camps, said a member of Frontier Myanmar.
Many in the Buddhist majority view the group as foreign interlopers from Bangladesh and deny the existence of a Rohingya ethnicity, insisting they be called "Bengalis". Myanmar's top general has blamed Rohingya people for the crisis that has led to hundreds of thousands crossing into Bangladesh. Gen Min Aung Hlaing said the Rohingya "has never been an ethnic group", and accused "extremists" of trying to form a stronghold in northern Rakhine state. His army is accused of targeting civilians in an offensive there, forcing Rohingya to flee. Myanmar denies this, and says it is responding to deadly militant attacks. In a Facebook post on September 17, Gen Min Aung Hlaing urged people and the media in Myanmar to unite over the "issue" of the Rohingya.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who reached New York on September 17 to attend the United Nations General Assembly, would plead for global support to cope with the ongoing Rohingya crisis, as the refugee deluge fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar tops 410,000. Her priority at the 72nd UNGA is to make a formal proposal to find a long-lasting solution to the Rohingya crisis, which includes repatriation of over 800,000 Myanmar nationals through a peaceful manner.
Sheikh Hasina, who is set to address the general debate on September 21, would highlight the root causes behind the Rohingya crisis and place specific proposals for an early solution to the longstanding humanitarian crisis. Apart from addressing the UNGA, the PM would also take part in a variety of events on the sidelines and hold bilateral meetings with global leaders to mount pressure on Myanmar for halting the ethnic cleansing in Rakhine and taking back the Rohingyas.
Bangladesh is under great pressure as desperate people from the Rakhine state are entering Bangladesh seeking safety and shelter across borders. Despite Border Guards effort to prevent the influx, thousands of Myanmar's distressed citizens including women, children and elderly people continue to cross the border into Bangladesh. The latest attacks on August 25 may lead to another wave of refugee influx. Myanmar which appears to be indifferent towards the problem created by it should be tamed by more bilateral and trilateral diplomatic efforts and international interventions. It is highly expected that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will raise the issue in the United Nations General Assembly seeking its strong and urgent intervention.
The writer is a columnist.