YANGON • Myanmar's army chief has urged the country to unite over the "issue" of the Rohingya, a Muslim group he says has no roots in the country, and which his troops are accused of systematically purging.
The military says its "clearance operations" in northern Rakhine state are aimed at taking out Rohingya militants who attacked police posts on Aug 25.
But the violence has engulfed the border region and triggered an exodus of more than 400,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh, where they have told of soldiers slaughtering civilians and burning down entire villages.
United Nations leaders have described the campaign as having all the hallmarks of "ethnic cleansing" of the stateless Rohingya.
Many among the Buddhist majority view the group as foreign interlopers from Bangladesh and deny the existence of a Rohingya ethnicity, insisting they be called "Bengalis".
General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar's army chief, echoed that view in comments posted on his Facebook page on Saturday. "They have demanded recognition as Rohingya, which has never been an ethnic group in Myanmar. (The) Bengali issue is a national cause and we need to be united in establishing the truth," the post said.
The defence of his army's operations comes amid global condemnation of the violence, which has left Bangladesh with the overwhelming task of providing shelter and food to a rising tide of desperate refugees.
Yesterday, Myanmar's government hinted that it may not take back the Rohingya who fled across the border, accusing those refugees of having links to the militants. "Those who fled the villages made their way to the other country for fear of being arrested as they got involved in the violent attacks. Legal protection will be given to the villages whose residents did not flee," the government's Information Committee statement said.
Myanmar's civilian leader, former democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, has no power to control the army, which retains sweeping powers from its years of junta rule. But she has been castigated for failing to voice sympathy for the Rohingya .
Meanwhile, the United States has dispatched an envoy to Myanmar to express its "grave concern" with the violence in Rakhine, a US State Department official told Agence France- Presse. Mr Patrick Murphy, deputy assistant secretary for South-east Asia, will meet government leaders and travel to the state capital of Rakhine but not the conflict zone, the official said.