International divisions emerged on Tuesday ahead of a UN Security Council meeting on a worsening refugee crisis in Myanmar, with China voicing support for a military crackdown that has been criticised by the US, slammed as “ethnic cleansing” and forced 370,000 Rohingya to flee the violence.
Beijing's intervention appears aimed at heading off any attempt to censure Myanmar at the council when it convenes on Wednesday.
China was one of the few foreign friends of Myanmar's former junta.
Beijing has tightened its embrace under Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian government as part of its giant trade, energy and infrastructure strategy for Southeast Asia.
The exodus from Myanmar's western Rakhine state began after Rohingya militants attacked police posts on August 25, prompting a military backlash that has sent a third of the Muslim minority population fleeing for their lives.
Exhausted Rohingya refugees have given accounts of atrocities at the hands of soldiers and Buddhist mobs who burned their villages to the ground.
They can not be independently verified as access to Rakhine state is heavily controlled.
Myanmar's government denies any abuses and instead blames militants for burning down thousands of villages, including many belonging to Rohingya.
But international pressure on Myanmar heightened this week after United Nations rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said the violence seemed to be a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
The US also raised alarm over the violence while the Security Council announced it would meet Wednesday to discuss the crisis.
Opprobrium has been heaped on Suu Kyi, who was once a darling of the rights community but now faces accusations of turning a blind eye to ─ and even abetting ─ a humanitarian catastrophe by Western powers who once feted her as well as a slew of fellow Nobel Laureates.
But Beijing offered more encouraging words to her on Tuesday, with foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang voicing support for her government's efforts to “uphold peace and stability” in Rakhine.
“We hope order and normal life there will be recovered as soon as possible,” he told a press briefing.
The Rohingya minority are denied citizenship and have suffered years of persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
“An estimated 370,000 Rohingya have entered Bangladesh,” since August 25 Joseph Tripura, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency, told AFP.
The real figure may be higher as many new arrivals are still on the move making it difficult to include them in the count, the UN said, adding 60 per cent of refugees are children.
Most are in dire need of food, medical care and shelter after trekking for days through hills and jungles or braving dangerous boat journeys.
In a statement late Monday Suu Kyi's foreign ministry defended the military for doing their “legitimate duty to restore stability”, saying troops were under orders “to exercise all due restraint and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage.”
Britain and Sweden requested the urgent Security Council meeting amid growing international concern over the ongoing violence.
The council met behind closed doors in late August to discuss the violence, but could not agree a formal statement.
'Stop the oppression'
The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar has said the latest violence may have left more than 1,000 dead, most of them Rohingya.
Myanmar says the number of dead is around 430, the majority of them “extremist terrorists” from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
It says a further 30,000 ethnic Rakhine and Hindus have been displaced inside northern Rakhine, where aid programmes have been severely curtailed due to the violence.
The exodus of Rohingya has saddled Bangladesh with its own humanitarian crisis, as aid workers scramble to provide food and shelter to a daily stream of bedraggled refugees.
The UN-run refugee camps in its Cox's Bazar district were already packed with Rohingya who had fled from previous waves of persecution.
Dhaka is providing them temporary shelter.
But Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who visited a Rohingya camp on Tuesday, stressed it was up to Myanmar to “resolve” the issue.
“We will request the Myanmar government to stop oppressing innocent people,” she said during a tour of a camp in Cox's Bazar, according to local outlet bdnews24.com.
Dhaka, which has refused to permanently absorb the Rohingya, said it plans to build a huge new camp that will house a quarter of a million refugees.
But it remains unclear if or when they will be able to return.
Plumes of smoke continued to rise on the Myanmar side of the border this week despite the militants' announcement on Sunday of a unilateral ceasefire.
There was no direct response from Myanmar's military, though government spokesman Zaw Htay tweeted: “We have no policy to negotiate with terrorists."