Myanmar’s vice president told the U.N. General Assembly Wednesday that the situation in western Rakhine state is improving, but remains a serious concern for the government.
“Let me be clear, the government of Myanmar is deeply concerned about the present situation in Rakhine,” U Henry Van Thio said. “There is no denying that this is a problem of significant magnitude.”
Violence erupted there Aug. 25, when a group of Rohingya militants attacked dozens of police posts and an army base in what they said was an effort to protect their ethnic minority from persecution.
About 400 people have been killed in subsequent clashes, and a military counteroffensive sent more than 400,000 people fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh.
UN weighs in
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has called on the authorities to suspend military action, end the violence, and recognize the right of return of the refugees. He has warned that their actions constitute ethnic cleansing.
“We would need to find out the reason for this exodus,” U Henry Van Thio told world leaders at their annual gathering. He claimed that “the great majority of the Muslim population” has remained in their villages and said there have been no armed clashes reported since Sept. 5.
The Myanmar military has been accused of the widespread burning of villages, rape and killings during its offensive.
“At present, humanitarian assistance is our first priority,” the vice president said.
The U.N. Security Council, among others, has demanded that the government give aid workers safe and unhindered access to the affected areas.
U Henry Van Thio reiterated de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s pledge Tuesday to allow refugees to return home. In a televised address from Naypyitaw, she said her government is ready to start the verification process at any time.
The stateless Rohingya minority has long been denied basic rights in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which views them as immigrants from Bangladesh.