UNITED NATIONS – Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Wednesday that ethnic cleansing is taking place in Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslim minority, and the U.N. Security Council condemned the violence that has led nearly 380,000 Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh.
Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said the council’s press statement, following closed-door consultations, was the first statement the U.N.’s most powerful body has made in nine years on the situation in Myanmar. He called it “an important first step.”
The secretary-general has been outspoken about calling for an end to the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, and sent the Security Council an official letter raising his concerns about a crisis — the first time a U.N. chief has done so since 1989.
The Security Council has not agreed on a Myanmar statement since 2008 when the country was in a transition to democracy, mainly because of neighboring China’s support for the government and its military.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had accused the Security Council on Tuesday of ignoring large-scale “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingyas and demanded that it hold an open meeting and urge an end to the violence.
“It’s a first step, but the council needs to escalate this to the level that a crisis that bears the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing deserves,” Human Rights Watch’s U.N. Director Louis Charbonneau said after Wednesday’s council statement. “We haven’t seen that yet.”
Guterres at a wide-ranging press conference called Myanmar one of two world issues “at the top of global concerns,” along with North Korea.
“Grievances that have been left to fester for decades have now escalated beyond Myanmar’s borders, destabilizing the region,” the secretary-general warned. “The humanitarian situation is catastrophic.”
Last week there were 125,000 Rohingya refugees who had fled to Bangladesh and “the number has now tripled to nearly 380,000,” he said.
Guterres was asked whether he agreed with U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein that what’s happening in Rakhine State is ethnic cleansing. He answered with a question: “When one-third of the Rohingya population had to flee the country, can you find a better word to describe it?”
Rohingya have faced decades of discrimination and persecution by the majority Buddhist population in Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship despite centuries-old roots in the country.
The current crisis erupted on Aug. 25, when an insurgent Rohingya group attacked police outposts in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, killing a dozen security personnel.
That prompted Myanmar’s military to launch “clearance operations” against the rebels, setting off a wave of violence that has left hundreds dead, thousands of homes burned, and tens of thousands fleeing to Bangladesh.
Guterres reiterated his condemnations of the attacks by the insurgent Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army but said reported attacks by security forces against civilians “are completely unacceptable.”
The secretary-general called on Myanmar’s authorities “to suspend military action, end the violence, uphold the rule of law, and recognize the right of return of all those who had to leave the country.” He also reiterated his call for the government to grant the Rohingyas nationality or at least legal status so they can get jobs, education and health care.
The Security Council statement acknowledged the Aug. 25 attacks on Myanmar’s security forces but it “condemned the subsequent violence” that sent more than 370,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.
Council members in the statement “expressed concern about reports of excessive violence during the security operations and called for immediate steps to end the violence in Rakhine, de-escalate the situation, re-establish law and order, ensure the protection of civilians, restore normal socioeconomic conditions, and resolve the refugee problem.”
The Security Council also urged the government to implement the recommendations of a commission led by former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan calling for economic development and social justice to counter deadly violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state.
A Security Council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because the consultations were closed, said even though the U.S., U.K., Sweden and others wanted a tougher statement, many council members said it was “a considerable achievement” that all 15 countries including China agreed to send a clear message to Myanmar’s government and military.
The diplomat said there will be pressure for more council action if Myanmar authorities do not change course.
Britain’s Rycroft said several council members called for a follow-up open council meeting and a presidential statement on the Myanmar crisis, which unlike a press statement becomes part of the Security Council’s official record.
He said Britain, which is in charge of drafting Myanmar statements, “will get to work” on that.
Rycroft said that on the sidelines of next week’s gathering of world leaders at the General Assembly British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson will co-host a ministerial-level meeting on Myanmar. He said Turkey is also hosting a meeting on Myanmar organized by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Myanmar’s government announced Wednesday that the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi will not attend next week’s global gathering. She has been sharply criticized, especially as a former Nobel peace prize winner, for not dealing with the Rohingya crisis.
Secretary-General Guterres said he has spoken to Suu Kyi several times about the “dramatic tragedy,” but not since the announcement that she is skipping the General Assembly.