As world leaders meet at UN, opinion hardens against Myanmar

An Indian Muslim activist holds a placard during a a rally against the Myanmar government to protest the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, near the near the Consulate General of Myanmar, in Kolkata. (Dibyangshu Sarkar, AFP)
An Indian Muslim activist holds a placard during a a rally against the Myanmar government to protest the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, near the near the Consulate General of Myanmar, in Kolkata. (Dibyangshu Sarkar, AFP)

United Nations - International opinion hardened against Myanmar on Monday as the U.S., Britain and other powers renewed calls for an end to violence against Rohingya Muslims, whose plight is overshadowing the Southeast Asian nation's historic transition to democracy.

A year ago at the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations, Myanmar was being lauded for staging elections and shifting peacefully from decades of oppressive military rule.

At this year's UN session, Myanmar, also known as Burma, appeared in danger of being an international outlier again.

Outrage is growing over a military crackdown that has triggered an exodus of more than 400 000 Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh in less than a month in what the UN has described as "ethnic cleansing. "

Waiting on Suu Kyi

Last week, the Security Council, the UN's most powerful body, condemned the violence in its first statement on Myanmar in nine years.

On Monday, Britain presided at a meeting of several Western and Muslim-majority governments that urged senior Myanmar officials to stop abuses against the Muslim minority and restore humanitarian access.

Myanmar's government has blamed the crisis on Rohingya insurgents who attacked security posts in Rakhine State in late August.

But the military's heavy response has severely affected civilians. Human rights groups, which are demanding punitive sanctions against Myanmar, say satellite imagery shows dozens of settlements have been set on fire. Many fleeing Rohingya say their homes were burned by Myanmar troops or Buddhist mobs.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called the violence a "stain" on Myanmar's reputation.

He urged action from the nation's democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticised for failing to speak out in defence of the Rohingya. The minority group is widely loathed by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar and viewed as outsiders despite the fact many have lived in the country for generations.

"It is vital that Aung San Suu Kyi and the civilian government make clear these abuses must stop," Johnson said in a statement.

Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate who spent nearly 15 years in house arrest under Myanmar's former ruling junta, is skipping the UN gathering and will address her nation on Tuesday.

US Ambassador Nikki Haley said Monday's meeting, attended by Myanmar's national security adviser and deputy foreign minister, was productive but the situation remains dire. She urged the government to end military operations, grant humanitarian access and commit to aiding the safe return of civilians to their homes.

"People are still at risk of being attacked or killed, humanitarian aid is not reaching the people who need it, and innocent civilians are still fleeing across the border to Bangladesh," Haley said.

Ministers from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Turkey, Australia, Canada, Sweden and Denmark also attended the closed meeting Monday. The British statement said the meeting urged Myanmar to implement recommendations of a commission led by former UN chief Kofi Annan calling for economic development and social justice to counter deadly violence between Buddhists and the Rohingya.

Also Monday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said one-third of the Rohingya community has been forced into exile and it requires a collective response by the international community to ensure their protection.

"We are waiting for Aung San Suu Kyi to give a strong answer and a real dialogue," he told reporters.

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