THE escalating crisis in Rakhine State, Myanmar (Burma), where violence has erupted between state forces and the Rohingya Muslim minority, has been the subject of comment by the United Nation’s secretary-general, António Guterres, Pope Francis, and the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith.
Last month, a series of co-ordinated attacks by a little-known Rohingya insurgent group were launched against Myanmar security forces in Rakhine, which has been locked in simmering conflict since 2015.
In response, the army has carried out reprisal operations against civilians, backed by Buddhist mobs, which have reportedly included rape and arson. So far, the military’s counter-offensive has left hundreds of Rohingyas dead, and tens of thousands more fleeing for their lives.
Mr Guterres urged both sides to address the underlying dispute rather than continue the spiral of attack and retribution.
A statement from the UN said: “The Secretary-General, who condemned those attacks, reiterates the importance of addressing the root causes of the violence and the responsibility of the government of Myanmar to provide security and assistance to those in need.”
In an earlier statement after the first attack, Mr Guterres “strongly urged all the communities in Rakhine State to choose the path of peace”.
Mr Guterres also backed the proposed peace plan from a predecessor, Kofi Annan, who chaired an advisory commission on the conflict in Rakhine, and called on the Myanmar authorities to swiftly implement it.
Pope Francis will visit Myanmar in November, the Vatican announced last week. Speaking on Sunday to pilgrims in St Peter’s Square, the Pope said that the “sad news” of the “the persecution of the religious minority of our Rohingya brothers” had reached him.
“I would like to express all my closeness to them, and let us all ask the Lord to save them, and to inspire men and women of good will to help them, so that they may have their full rights.”
Dr Smith, who has previously raised the plight of Rohingya refugees in the House of Lords, said that peace in the region was unlikely until Myanmar granted Rohingyas their rights.
“If the latest reports of violence in Myanmar against the Rohingya minority are confirmed, it will highlight the need for urgent diplomatic action to de-escalate tension in the region,” he said.
“While the rights and freedoms of the Rohingya people are denied, and access to independent human-rights monitors is refused, it is hard to see lasting peace in the region being possible.”
The Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Dr Desmond Tutu, has broken his self-imposed retirement from public life to call upon his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, to stop the bloodshed.
In an open letter, he said she was a “dearly beloved younger sister” who symbolised “righteousness”. “It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country. If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
Dr Smith also pledged to ask further questions in the Lords to continue to hold the Government to account for its response to the conflict.
On Tuesday, he told peers that UN reports said that 35,000 Rohingya had crossed the border into Bangladesh in the past 24 hours, and that the two refugee camps available were now full.
“What action does Her Majesty’s Government plan to take in response to this humanitarian crisis, and what representations are being made to the Myanmar government concerning the blocking of vital humanitarian aid in Rakhine district?” he asked.
Baroness Goldie, a government whip, replied by noting that the Government was one of the largest donors of aid to Myanmar, and that the British Ambassador was lobbying the authorities.
Human Rights Watch has released satellite images which show how, in one Rohingya village alone, 700 homes — 99 per cent of the total dwellings — have been burned to the ground.
The Guardian has reported that Myanmar is blocking all aid distribution by the UN, leaving hundreds of thousands of Burmese, both Buddhist and Muslim, without vital supplies of food, water, and medicines.
In a parliamentary debate on the Rohingya in January, Dr Smith said that persecution by the state was pushing more and more of the community towards armed insurrection.
“The longer progress remains stalled, the greater the danger that Rakhine will plunge into ethnic cleansing and civil war. The situation is delicate,” he said.
The junior Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay of St Johns said in a later written answer to a question from Dr Smith that the Government had repeatedly demanded an independent inquiry into human-rights violations in Rakhine.
“We support the Rakhine Advisory Commission led by former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan,” Baroness Anelay wrote. “This has the support of the Burmese Government and the international community, and therefore represents the most realistic way forward.
“In the meantime, we strongly urge the Burmese military to show restraint and to permit humanitarian access to the affected areas.”