SEOUL: More than 1,000 people may already have been killed in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, mostly members of the Muslim Rohingya minority, a senior United Nations representative told Agence France-Presse on Friday—around twice the government’s figure.
“Perhaps about a thousand or more are already dead,” said Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar.
“This might be from both sides but it would be heavily concentrated on the Rohingya population.”
In the last two weeks alone 164,000 mostly Rohingya civilians have fled to Bangladesh, overwhelming refugee camps that were already bursting at the seams.
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 August 25, prompting a military-led crackdown.
The Rohingya have long been subjected to discrimination in mostly Buddhist Myanmar, which denies them citizenship and regards them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even if they have lived in the country for generations.
The figures given by Lee, a South Korean academic, in an interview in Seoul, are far higher than official tolls, which total 432.
In updated figures released by the authorities on Thursday, Myanmar said 6,600 Rohingya homes and 201 non-Muslim homes had been burned to the ground since August 25.
They added some 30 civilians had been killed—seven Rohingyas, seven Hindus and 16 Rakhine Buddhists—in the fighting.
Myanmar’s army has previously said it has killed 387 Rohingya militants. Authorities say they have lost 15 security personnel since the August attacks.
But Lee told Agence France-Presse that “it’s highly possible that it’s underestimated numbers.”
“The unfortunate thing, the serious thing is that we can’t verify that now with no access.
“I think that it’s going to be one of the worst disasters that the world and Myanmar has seen in recent years.”
On Thursday, the United States urged Myanmar authorities to allow humanitarian access to Rakhine state amid reports of violence against the Rohingya minority.
But the State Department would not say whether Washington is considering sanctions against Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, nor whether US officials find the reports of state-sponsored massacres credible.
“The United States is deeply concerned about the troubling situation in Burma’s northern Rakhine state,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters. Rakhine is the country’s poorest state.
“There has been a significant displacement of local populations following serious allegations of human rights abuses including mass burnings of Rohingya villages and violence conducted by security forces and also armed civilians,” she said.
“We again condemn deadly attacks on Burmese security forces, but join the international community in calling on those forces to prevent further attacks on local populations in ways that are consistent with the rule of law and with full respect for human rights.”
The United Nations says that more than 250,000 refugees, most of them Rohingya, have fled Myanmar into Bangladesh since violence erupted last October. Witnesses say entire villages have been burned to the ground since Rohingya militants launched a series of attacks on August 25, prompting a forceful military-led crackdown.