YANGON (AFP) - 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.
UN leaders have described the campaign as having all the hallmarks of "ethnic cleansing" of the Rohingya, a stateless group that has endured years of persecution and repression.
The status of the Muslim minority has long been a explosive topic in Myanmar, where many in 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 globe-trotting army chief, trumpeted that view in comments posted on his official Facebook page Saturday (Sept 16).
"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 strident 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.
Myanmar's civilian leader, former democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, has also been castigated for failing to voice sympathy for the Rohingya - a group she has asked her government to refer to only as "Muslims of Rakhine state".
The Nobel laureate is set to address the nation on the crisis for the first time Tuesday, a high stakes speech that many outside the country hope will explain her near silence on the human tragedy that is unfolding.
Yet supporters inside the country, where she still enjoys saint-like status for championing Myanmar's emergence from junta rule, say the leader must tread carefully around a military that ran the country for 50 years and still looms large in the fragile democracy.