The past month’s influx of a half-million refugees into southeastern Bangladesh from Myanmar represents the “world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency,” the U.N.’s secretary-general told a Security Council session where the United States openly accused Naypyidaw’s military forces of targeting Rohingya Muslims through ethnic cleansing.
A spirited debate unfolded among ambassadors from the U.S., China and other world powers after Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the international community to act to contain the crisis.
Guterres called on Myanmar authorities to stop a military crackdown in Rakhine state, which has led to more than 500,000 people seeking shelter in neighboring Bangladesh since Aug. 25, amid reports of mass atrocities being committed by Burmese soldiers and Buddhist militia.
“The situation has spiraled into the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare,” Guterres said as he briefed an open session of the 15-member Security Council on Thursday afternoon.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was blunt when her turn came to speak.
“We cannot be afraid to call the actions of the Burmese authorities what they appear to be: a brutal, sustained campaign to cleanse the country of an ethnic minority. And it should shame senior Burmese leaders who have sacrificed so much for an open, democratic Burma,” Haley said, referring to Myanmar by its other name.
This was the first time that a top U.S. official had described the crackdown in Rakhine as “ethnic cleansing.”
Myanmar’s military launched it after an insurgent group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) carried out multiple attacks on police outposts in Rakhine on Aug. 25.
The military and militia have been widely blamed for allegedly targeting Rohingya civilians in atrocities, such as the burning of Rohingya villages, as well as the raping and killing of women and girls from the Muslim minority.
Myanmar’s government has rejected those allegations, saying ARSA was behind the violence and that its fighters had also massacred members of the Hindu minority in Rakhine.
“The Burmese government claims it is battling terrorists. If this is true, let them allow media and humanitarian access to back up their claim. If terrorists are the problem, let the military explain how killing children and forcing families from their homes will make Burma any safer,” Haley said.
“[W]hat has taken place is a brutal assault that doesn’t advance justice in Burma; it puts it further out of reach. The government’s response has undermined Burma’s security, stability, and its fragile democratic transition,” the American envoy added.
Meanwhile in southeastern Cox Bazar district, the epicenter of the humanitarian crisis on the Bangladeshi side of the border, 23 refugees were confirmed dead after their boat capsized in rough waters in the Bay of Bengal as they tried to cross over to Bangladesh on Thursday, the International Organization of Migration (IOM) said Friday.
Out of the 80 people on board, 17 passengers were rescued but 40 others were missing, according to a news release from the IOM, the U.N.’s international migration agency.
China, Russia weigh in
In recent days human rights groups had pressed the U.N. Security Council to vote to impose sanctions on Myanmar over the situation in Rakhine, but its 15 members took no such punitive action on Thursday.
The criticism leveled by Ambassador Haley against Myanmar contrasted sharply with statements made by the envoys from China and Russia, two other permanent council members that can veto any of its resolutions.
Ambassador Wu Haitao, China’s deputy permanent representative at the U.N., said Beijing condemned “the recent violent attacks in Myanmar’s Rakhine state” and supported “Myanmar’s effort to keep its domestic situation stable.”
“It behooves the international community to view the difficulties and challenges confronting the government of Myanmar through objective optics,” he said.
Russia’s ambassador to the U.N. voiced his government’s concern about the violence in Rakhine, but said ARSA insurgents were “first and foremost” responsible for provoking it. He said Russia had obtained information showing that rebels were involved in killing civilians.
“We resolutely condemn their armed attempts aimed at undermining the efforts to stabilize the situation in the Rakhine state,” Russian envoy Vassily A. Nebenzia told the Security Council, according to a televised recording.
“Excessive pressure on Naypyidaw” could only aggravate tensions in Rakhine, he said, adding that the parties involved and outside players should show restraint and “be objective” in their assessment of the situation.
“We need to be very careful when we wield notions such as genocide and ethnic cleansing,” Nebenzia said.
‘An untenable situation’: Bangladesh envoy
Myanmar National Security Adviser U Thaung Tun also spoke at the council’s session in New York. He defended his government from the criticism from other countries, denying that ethnic cleansing or genocide was happening in Rakhine.
He accused ARSA of spreading rumors that government forces were committing atrocities against civilians. This was all “malicious and unsubstantiated chatter,” he said, adding that Myanmar’s government was committed to a “sustainable solution that would lead to peace, stability, development and the return of displaced communities to their homes.”
“It would be a sad commentary of our times if we allowed emotions to cloud our view and assert that what is happening in Rakhine is ethnic cleansing without first undertaking a legal review and making a judicial determination,” U Thaung Tun said, according to a transcript.
Bangladesh’s envoy to the U.N. spoke last.
The massive new influx of refugees from Myanmar had pushed the number of Rohingya and others sheltering in southeastern Bangladesh to more than 900,000 people, including refugees who had fled from earlier cycles of violence in Rakhine, Ambassador Masud Bin Momen said.
“This is an untenable situation, to say the least,” he said.
He lashed out at the Myanmar government for refusing to identify the Rohingya people by their name and lumping them together as “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.”
“This has to stop,” Momen said.
He also told the council that Myanmar was testing Bangladesh’s patience along the border between the two countries, but Dhaka continued to show the “utmost restraint.”
He cited cases in which Myanmar helicopters and drones had breached Bangladeshi airspace at least 19 times. He also alleged that Myanmar’s forces had laid land-mines along the border. Two divisions of the Myanmar armed forces had also deployed in areas near the frontier, Momen said.
The view from Bangladesh
In Bangladesh on Friday, government officials expressed disappointment about Thursday’s Security Council meeting.
“We are really frustrated by the Russian position. They did not recognize the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Rohingya by the Myanmar military in Rakhine. The Russian statement will encourage the military and the vigilante Buddhists to accelerate ethnic cleansing and genocide in Rakhine,” a spokesman for the Bangladesh’s foreign ministry, who declined to be identified, told BenarNews.
The official said the ministry wasn’t expecting the Russians, who maintain bilateral military ties with Bangladesh and are building a nuclear power plant in the country, to surprise them as their U.N. ambassador did through his statement on Rakhine.
In Cox’s Bazar on Friday, Rohingya refugees expressed mixed feelings about the council’s meeting.
“The Rohingya have been very frustrated. We expected something tough from the UN Security Council.,” Abdul Motlob, a leader at the Leda refugee camp, told BenarNews.
“So, the [Security Council] cannot take any resolution. But the holding of a discussion at the UN Security Council is a positive development,” he said.
Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka and Abdur Rahman in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh contributed to this report.