More than a dozen fellow Nobel laureates have criticised Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, for a bloody military crackdown on minority Rohingya people, warning of a tragedy “amounting to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”.
The open letter to the UN security council from a group of 23 activists, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai, warned that the army offensive had killed of hundreds of people, including children, and left women raped, houses burned and many civilians arbitrarily arrested.
It was delivered as Bangladesh announced around 50,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the violence across its border.
“Access for humanitarian aid organisations has been almost completely denied, creating an appalling humanitarian crisis in an area already extremely poor,” reads the letter, whose signatories include current and former political and business leaders and campaigners such as Yousafzai, the youngest winner of the Nobel peace prize.
“Some international experts have warned of the potential for genocide. It has all the hallmarks of recent past tragedies – Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, Kosovo,” the letter reads.
“If we fail to take action, people may starve to death if they are not killed with bullets.”
The government of predominantly Buddhist Myanmar says it is responding to several attacks carried out by Rohingya militants that killed nine police officers on 9 October.
But the signatories to the letter said the army’s response had been “grossly disproportionate”.
“It would be one thing to round up suspects, interrogate them and put them on trial,” the letter said. “It is quite another to unleash helicopter gunships on thousands of ordinary civilians and to rape women and throw babies into a fire.”
The Rohingya are a minority of about a million people who, despite living in the country for generations, are treated as illegal immigrants and denied citizenship. They have been persecuted for years by the government and nationalist Buddhists.
The recent bloodshed is the most deadly since hundreds were killed in clashes in 2012 and more than 100,000 were forced into squalid camps.
An Amnesty International report this month, based on extensive interviews with Rohingya as well as analysis of satellite imagery, claimed that actions by Myanmar’s military may constitute crimes against humanity.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent much of the past two decades under house arrest and was awarded the 1991 Nobel peace prize, won elections last November, ending decades of junta rule.
But the Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw, retain significant power in Myanmar. Under the army-drafted constitution, the military controls the three most powerful government ministries: home, defence and border affairs.
Aung San Suu Kyi is foreign minister and state counsellor, as the law bars her from the presidency, which is held by her close aide Htin Kyaw. However, she is widely considered the country’s de facto leader.
The open letter said that “despite repeated appeals to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi we are frustrated that she has not taken any initiative to ensure full and equal citizenship rights of the Rohingyas. Daw Suu Kyi is the leader and is the one with the primary responsibility to lead, and lead with courage, humanity and compassion.”
Nobel peace laureates who signed the letter include Jose Ramos-Horta, former president of East Timor, and Yemeni opposition activist Tawakul Karman. It was also signed by former prime minister of Italy Romano Prodi and British business leader Sir Richard Branson.
Bangladesh has stepped up patrols to try to stop refugees crossing the border during the last three months, and its foreign ministry had summoned Myanmar’s ambassador to express “deep concern at the continued influx”.
“Around 50,000 Myanmar citizens took shelter into Bangladesh since 9 October 2016,” the foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday.
A spokesman for the United Nations high commissioner for refugees told AFP that at least 43,000 Rohingya have taken shelter in Bangladesh since October.