BANGKOK — The top U.S. diplomat for Southeast Asia said America remains deeply troubled by the ongoing crisis and allegations of human rights abuses in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled government security operations in recent weeks.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia Patrick Murphy, speaking Friday in a conference call from Bangkok, said while the U.S. condemns August attacks by Muslim Rohingya militants, the response from Myanmar’s security forces has been “disproportionate.” He called on security forces to end the violence in Rakhine, stop vigilantism there, protect civilians and facilitate humanitarian assistance in the area.
Murphy also called on the security forces to work with the civilian government to implement the recommendations of a committee headed by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
An estimated 429,000 Rohingya refugees have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh in less than a month, with most ending up in camps in the Bangladeshi district of Cox’s Bazar, which already had hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who had fled prior rounds of violence in Myanmar.
“The situation in the camps is so incredibly fragile, especially with regard to shelter, food and water, and sanitation, that one small event could lead to an outbreak that may be the tipping point between a crisis and a catastrophe,” Robert Onus, emergency co-ordinator for the medical relief agency Medecins San Frontieres, said Thursday.
“Hundreds of thousands of refugees are living in an extremely precarious situation, and all the preconditions for a public health disaster are there,” Onus said in a statement, calling for a “massive step-up of humanitarian aid.”
Another danger was highlighted by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, which condemned Myanmar’s use of anti-personnel mines along its border with Bangladesh.
“According to eyewitness accounts, photographic evidence, and multiple reports, antipersonnel mines have been laid between Myanmar’s two major land crossings with Bangladesh, resulting in casualties among Rohingya refugees fleeing government attacks on their homes,” the group said.
It demanded that Myanmar immediately cease using such weapons and accede to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, to which 162 other nations are parties.
The latest violence began when a Rohingya insurgent group launched deadly attacks on security posts Aug. 25, prompting Myanmar’s military to launch “clearance operations” to root out the rebels. Those fleeing have described indiscriminate attacks by security forces and Buddhist mobs. The government has blamed the Rohingya, saying they set fire to their own homes, but the U.N. and others accuse it of ethnic cleansing.
Rohingya have faced persecution and discrimination in majority-Buddhist Myanmar for decades and are denied citizenship, even though many families have lived there for generations. The government says there is no such ethnicity as Rohingya and that they are Bengalis who illegally migrated to Myanmar from Bangladesh.
Murphy said the U.S. welcomed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to speak publicly about the problem this week. He also said the U.S. realizes that Suu Kyi has limited control over the security forces due to the nation’s “flawed constitution,” which allows the military to remain politically powerful and guarantees it control of key ministries including those related to security and defence.
Murphy said the U.S. has warned Myanmar about potential repercussions it faces if it doesn’t address the crisis, including greater instability in Rakhine, threats to the stability of its borders, the risk of attracting international terrorists, scaring off investment, and ultimately stunting its transition to democracy.