Rohingya crisis persists, military defends its 'clearance operations'

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YANGON: Myanmar's army chief has urged the country to unite over the "issue" of the Rohingya, a Muslim group that he says has no roots in the country and which his troops are accused of systematically purging.

The military said its "clearance operations" in northern Rakhine state are aimed at taking out Rohingya militants who attacked police posts on Aug 25.

But the violence has engulfed the border region and triggered an exodus of over 400,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh, where they have told of soldiers slaughtering civilians and burning entire villages.

UN leaders have described the campaign as having all the hallmarks of "ethnic cleansing" of the Rohingya, a stateless group that has endured years of persecution.

The status of the Muslim minority has been an explosive topic in Myanmar - many in the Buddhist majority view the group as interlopers from Bangladesh and deny the existence of a Rohingya ethnicity, insisting they be called "Bengalis".

Myanmar's army chief Min Aung Hlaing trumpeted that view in comments posted on his Facebook page on Saturday.

"They have demanded recognition as Rohingya, which has never been an ethnic group in Myanmar. (The) Bengali issue is a national cause, and we need to be united in establishing the truth," the post said.

The defence of his army comes amid strident global condemnation of the violence, which has left Bangladesh with the overwhelming task of providing food and shelter to a rising tide of desperate refugees.

Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi has no power to control the army, which retains powers from its years of junta rule, but she has been castigated for failing to voice sympathy for the Rohingya.

All eyes will be on the Nobel laureate as she addresses the nation on the crisis for the first time tomorrow, a high-stakes speech that many outside the country hope will explain her near silence on the tragedy.

Meanwhile, a relief group has said that more than a million Rohingya, including some 600,000 children, could flee to Bangladesh by year end.

Mr Mark Pierce, the Bangladesh chief of Save the Children charity, said Bangladesh and relief agencies are struggling to cope with new arrivals sheltering on roadsides, hills and open spaces close to existing camps around Cox's Bazar, which borders Myanmar.

Thousands of the refugees are half-starving, and a health emergency could break out.

Bangladesh has announced it will build 14,000 shelters for some 400,000 refugees but is also readying a desolate island where many can be relocated.

Mr Pierce said his group is particularly worried about the children and orphans who have arrived alone in Bangladesh.

"This is a real concern, as these children are in an especially vulnerable position, being at increased risk of exploitation and abuse," he said.

"Some children have witnessed violence and killing. Some have been shot at, others have seen their homes set on fire. Some have reportedly watched their parents being killed." - AFP