CNN | | Español | Listen

Myanmar government: Almost 40% of Rohingya villages are now empty

Updated 10:17 AM ET, Thu September 14, 2017

(CNN) - Almost 40% of all Rohingya villages in Myanmar's Rakhine State are now empty, a government spokesperson has confirmed.

More than 370,000 Rohingya -- many of them women and children -- have fled to Bangladesh to escape violence since August 25, according to the United Nations, an average of almost 20,000 a day. The refugees speak of indiscriminate clearance operations, huts set on fire and family members being taken away and never heard from again.

Zaw Htay, a spokesman for Myanmar's Presidential Office, said the reason people abandoned their homes was because many were told to leave by family members who were involved in terrorist activities.

"Some of them are directly involved with terrorist activities and some are sympathizers for the terrorist group," Zaw Htay wrote in an email to CNN. "And some are running away to avoid arrest by police because they had some connections with the terrorist group."

The government says 176 out of 471, or 37.4% of all Rohingya villages are now empty of people, and an additional 34 villages were "partially abandoned."

Prior to the current wave of violence, Myanmar's population of Rohingya was estimated to number about 1 million, with the majority clustered in small often isolated villages in the northern part of Rakhine State along the border with Bangladesh and India.

Myanmar's government maintains that the actions of its military are a necessary measure to protect against "terrorist activities" in Rahkine State by Rohingya militants.

Communities ripped apart

Among the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees pouring across the border into Bangladesh, stories of murder, rape and devastation are common.

Some have been injured by landmines they accuse Myanmar of planting along the border, while others described people being tortured to death or burned alive.

The United Nations said the crisis has left at least 1,000 people dead.

On Wednesday, the flight of the Rohingya Muslims prompted a rare rebuke from the UN Security Council.

In a statement, the first the UN's most powerful body has made in nine years on the situation in Rakhine State, the 15-member council acknowledged the initial militant attacks on Myanmar security forces but "condemned the subsequent violence," and called for "immediate steps to end the violence in Rakhine."

Earlier on Wednesday, UN Secretary General António Guterres said the crisis involving the Rohingya in Myanmar's Rakhine state had become "catastrophic."

"Grievances that have been left to fester for decades have now escalated beyond Myanmar's borders, destabilizing the region," Guterres told reporters at the United Nations. "The humanitarian situation ... is catastrophic."

Guterres said many women and children were arriving in Bangladesh "hungry and malnourished." Reports of attacks on civilians by Myanmar security forces are "disturbing" and "completely unacceptable," he said.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley tweeted her gratitude to Bangladesh for taking in the deluge of refugees.

In a statement the government of Bangladesh said it was expanding the camp for the Rohingya refugees and was doing all it could to help, "but it is nearing its limits."

Bangladesh "urgently calls on the government of Myanmar to repatriate the Rohigya within Bangladesh's borders, and on the international community to pressure Myanmar to do so."

US intervention

A US State Department official will travel to Myanmar this weekend to meet with government officials regarding the escalating crisis.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Murphy summoned Myanmar's ambassador to the US, Aung Lynn, Wednesday to express US concerns about the violence, including recent attacks on Rohingya villages, according to a senior State Department official, who called the message sent by the move "a tough one."

Bangladesh's appeal was echoed by Guterres. "I call on the Myanmar authorities to suspend military action, end the violence, uphold the rule of law and recognize the right of return of all those who had to leave the country," Guterres said, who also urged countries to provide aid.

The Rohingya Muslims "must be granted nationality or, at least for now, a legal status that allows them to lead a normal life, including freedom of movement and access to labor markets, education and health services," he added.

Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who earlier this week canceled a planned trip to the UN General Assembly, has been heavily criticized for not speaking out against the violence in Rakhine State. Suu KyI has previously claimed a "huge iceberg of misinformation" about the Rohingya crisis was being distributed to benefit "terrorists."

A spokesman for the presidential office in Myanmar said Wednesday that Suu Kyi had called off her upcoming trip to the 72nd UN General Assembly in New York for two reasons.

"One is the current situation in Rakhine state. We have terrorist attacks and also there are many works on public safety and humanitarian works," spokesman Zaw Htay said in a statement.

"And the second reason is we have received reports that there are possibilities of terrorist attacks in our country."

Htay later announced Suu Kyi would give a "state of the union" speech next Tuesday in which she would address the Rohingya crisis fully.

The latest outbreak of violence in Rakhine state was sparked last month by a series of alleged attacks by Rohingya militants on government border posts.

UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein on Monday described what was happening in Rakhine state as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."