U.N. rapporteur says government estimates are severely underestimating scope of conflict
More than 1,000 people may already have been killed in Myanmar, mostly minority Rohingya Muslims—more than twice the government’s total—a senior United Nations representative told AFP on Friday, urging Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out.
In the last two weeks alone 270,000 mostly Rohingya civilians have fled to Bangladesh, overwhelming refugee camps that were already bursting at the seams, the U.N. said. Others have died trying to flee the fighting in Rakhine state, where witnesses say entire villages have been burned since Rohingya militants launched a series of coordinated attacks on Aug. 25, prompting a military-led crackdown.
On the basis of witness testimonies and the pattern of previous outbreaks of violence, said Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, “perhaps about a thousand or more are already dead.”
“This might be from both sides but it would be heavily concentrated on the Rohingya population.”
The Rohingya have long been subjected to discrimination in mostly Buddhist Myanmar, which regards them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship even if they have lived in the country for generations. Bangladesh has struggled to cope with the latest influx, which takes the number of Rohingya refugees in camps on its border with Myanmar to around 670,000. Of these, nearly 357,000—a third of Myanmar’s total Rohingya population—have left since October when the latest upsurge in violence began.
The U.N. said there was a sharp increase in arrivals on Wednesday, when at least 300 boats from Myanmar landed in Bangladesh. Scores of Rohingya have drowned trying to make the perilous sea journey in boats that the Bangladesh authorities say are woefully inadequate at this time of year, when the sea is rough. Many of the dead were children.
Lee, a South Korean academic, told AFP she feared “it’s going to be one of the worst disasters that the world and Myanmar has seen in recent years.” The figures she gave are far higher than official tolls, which total 432, including 15 security personnel and 30 civilians—seven Rohingyas, seven Hindus and 16 Rakhine Buddhists.
In an interview at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, where she is a professor in the department of child psychology and education, Lee said it was “highly possible” the government had “underestimated numbers.” She added: “The unfortunate thing, the serious thing is that we can’t verify that now with no access.”
Lee expressed skepticism about authorities’ claims that the Rohingya were burning their own houses, pointing out that nearby Buddhist villages were untouched—and it is the rainy season. “If you have got people with guns and you’re running away and it’s damp, how easily can you set your own house on fire?” she asked.
Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent years under house arrest when Myanmar was a military dictatorship, is now the country’s de facto leader with the title of State Counselor. She has faced criticism for failing to condemn the violence, leaving her global reputation in tatters.
Earlier this week Suu Kyi, 72, condemned a “huge iceberg of misinformation” on the crisis, without mentioning the Rohingya flocking to Bangladesh. On Thursday she told Indian news agency ANI the situation in Rakhine was “one of the biggest challenges that we’ve had to face.”
“I think it is a little unreasonable to expect us to resolve everything in 18 months,” she added.
Rights groups, activists—including many who campaigned for her in the past—and her fellow Nobel laureates Malala Yousafzai and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have condemned her. In a letter Tutu told his “dearly beloved younger sister” that “the images we are seeing of the suffering of the Rohingya fill us with pain and dread.”
“It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country; it is adding to our pain,” he added.
Lee pointed out that around 86 percent of Myanmar’s population is Buddhist. “What we forget is that she is a politician through and through. People expect her to have that big high moral voice but she’s a politician, and what’s the most important objective if you are a politician? Getting elected,” she said. “I think we need to delete our memories of the imprisoned democratic icon.”