Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday blamed “terrorists” for “a huge iceberg of misinformation” on the violence in Rakhine state, but made no mention of the nearly 126,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled over the border to Bangladesh since Aug. 25.
The leader of Buddhist-majority Myanmar has come under pressure from countries with Muslim populations over the crisis, and on Tuesday U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of the risk of ethnic cleansing and regional destabilisation.
In a rare letter expressing concern that the violence that has raged for nearly two weeks in the northwestern state could spiral into a “humanitarian catastrophe”, Guterres urged the U.N. Security Council to press for restraint and calm.
Suu Kyi spoke by telephone on Tuesday with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who has pressed world leaders to do more to help a population of roughly 1.1 million he says are facing genocide.
In a statement issued by her office on Facebook, Suu Kyi said the government had “already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible” and warned against misinformation that could mar relations with other countries.
- Thousands of civilians flee fighting in Myanmar’s northwest
- Suu Kyi: No ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims
- Rohingya fleeing Myanmar for Bangladesh
She referred to images on Twitter of killings posted by Turkey’s deputy prime minister that he later deleted because they were not from Myanmar.
“She said that kind of fake information which was inflicted on the deputy prime minister was simply the tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different countries and with the aim of promoting the interests of the terrorists,” her office said in the statement.
The latest violence in Rakhine state began 12 days ago when Rohingya insurgents attacked dozens of police posts and an army base. The ensuing clashes and a military counter-offensive have killed at least 400 people and triggered the exodus of villagers to Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi has been accused by Western critics of not speaking out for the minority that has long complained of persecution, and some have called for the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991 as a champion of democracy to be revoked.
Myanmar says its security forces are fighting a legitimate campaign against “terrorists” responsible for a string of attacks on police posts and the army since last October.
Myanmar officials blame Rohingya militants for the burning of homes and civilian deaths. But rights monitors and Rohingya fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh say the Myanmar army is trying to force them out with a campaign of arson and killings.
Reuters reporters saw hundreds more exhausted Rohingya arriving on boats near the Bangladeshi border village of Shamlapur on Tuesday, suggesting the exodus was far from over.
The latest estimate of the numbers that have crossed into Bangladesh, based on calculations by U.N. workers, is 125,960, some 80 percent of whom are women and children.
Landmines on border
The new arrivals – many sick or wounded – have strained the resources of aid agencies and communities already helping hundreds of thousands of refugees from previous spasms of violence in Myanmar.
Many of those arriving in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district have no shelter, and aid agencies are racing to provide clean water and sanitation, a U.N. source working there said.
“People have come with virtually nothing so there has to be food,” the source said. “So this is now a huge concern – where is this food coming from for at least the elderly, the children, the women who have come over without their husbands?”
Officials in Bangladesh said the government would press ahead with plans to develop an isolated, flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal to temporarily house tens of thousands of Rohingya.
The plan to develop the island and use it to house refugees was criticised by humanitarian workers when it was proposed in 2015 and revived last year. Bangladesh insists it alone has the right to decide where to shelter the refugees.
The U.N. source said Bangladesh may have revived the island plan to keep pressure on the international community, and not be left to handle the crisis on its own.
“Bangladesh is getting desperate in wanting to get some political traction on this Rohingya issue. They feel incredibly isolated,” said the source, who declined to be identified.
Myanmar has been laying landmines across a section of its border with Bangladesh for the past three days, two government sources in Dhaka said, adding that the purpose may have been to prevent the return of Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence.
Bangladesh will formally lodge a protest on Wednesday against the laying of land mines so close to the border, said the sources who had direct knowledge of the situation but asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
A Myanmar military source said landmines were laid along the border in the 1990s to prevent trespassing and the military had since tried to remove them, but none had been planted recently.