YANGON • Myanmar came under mounting pressure yesterday as a rights group urged world leaders to impose sanctions on its military, which is accused of driving out more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims in an orchestrated "ethnic cleansing" campaign.
The call from Human Rights Watch (HRW) came as the United Nations General Assembly prepared to convene in New York, with the crisis in Myanmar one of the most pressing topics.
The exodus of Rohingya refugees from mainly Buddhist Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh has sparked a humanitarian emergency. Aid groups are struggling to provide relief to a daily stream of new arrivals, more than half of whom are children.
There are acute shortages of nearly all forms of aid, with many Rohingya huddling under tarpaulin as their only protection from monsoon rains.
Two children and a woman were killed last Friday in a stampede for aid near a Bangladesh refugee camp, UN agencies said, amid widespread fights among Rohingya for food and clothing thrown from relief trucks.
Hundreds of refugees travelled by small boats to an island on the southernmost point of Bangladesh late on Sunday and yesterday, with tales of persecution and destruction. "The army came and they burned our homes, they killed our people. There was a mob of Rakhine people too," Mr Usman Goni, 55, said after he stepped off a boat with his seven children and wife, clutching two sticks tied in rope and a sack.
Many of the refugees have spoken of ethnic Rakhine Buddhist civilians joining the Myanmar army in its attacks. Myanmar denies this, and has blamed Muslim insurgents for the violence.
Myanmar hinted on Sunday it would not take back all who had fled across the border, accusing those refugees of having links to Rohingya insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), whose attacks on police posts last month triggered the army backlash.
Any moves to block the refugees' return will likely inflame Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who will urge the UN General Assembly to put more global pressure on Myanmar to take back all the Rohingya massing in shanty towns and camps near the border.
The HRW also called for the "safe and voluntary return" of the displaced as it urged governments to punish Myanmar's army with sanctions for the "ongoing atrocities" against the Rohingya.
Myanmar's army was hit with sanctions during its 50-year rule of the country. Most have been lifted in recent years as the generals have allowed a partial transition to democracy.
Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi is set to address the nation on the crisis for the first time in a televised speech today.
The Nobel peace laureate, who decided not to attend the General Assembly, has angered the international community with her near silence on the plight of the Rohingya and her failure to condemn the actions of the army, with whom she has a delicate power-sharing arrangement.
Speaking to the BBC at the weekend, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called her upcoming address a "last chance" to stop the unfolding humanitarian calamity.
Until now, her government has defended the military campaign as a legitimate crackdown on the Rohingya militants.
The violence has gutted large swathes of northern Rakhine in just over three weeks, with fires visible almost daily across the border from the Bangladesh camps.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS