Attacks on Rohingya Muslims appear to be continuing in Myanmar and it is not yet safe for the hundreds of thousands living in refugee camps in Bangladesh to begin returning home, a senior United Nations official said.
Many Rohingya want to return eventually to their villages in Myanmar, UNICEF deputy executive director Justin Forsyth said Wednesday during a visit to the immense Kutupalong refugee camp. But they fear for their safety if they were to go back now, he said.
"The situation isn't safe for the returns to begin," he said. "I spoke to one young woman who had been on the phone to her aunt in Rakhine in Myanmar. And they were attacking villages even today."
More than 680,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar's Rakhine state beginning in August, after Myanmar security forces began "clearance operations" in their villages in the wake of attacks by Rohingya insurgents on police posts.
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Forsyth's comments came as former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson resigned suddenly from an advisory panel on the crisis, calling it a "whitewash and a cheerleading operation" for Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
"She blames all the problems that Myanmar is having on the international media, on the U.N., on human rights groups, on other governments, and I think this is caused by the bubble that is around her, by individuals that are not giving her frank advice," Richardson, once a close friend of Suu Kyi, said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.
Richardson said Suu Kyi appeared to want the 10-member international advisory group, one in a string of Rohingya commissions set up by the Myanmar government, to endorse her policies.
"I'm not going to be part of it because I think there are serious issues of human rights violations, safety, citizenship, peace and stability that need to be addressed," said Richardson, who often works as an international troubleshooter. "I just felt that my advice and counsel would not be heeded."
Gradual repatriations of Rohingya were to begin Tuesday under agreements signed by Myanmar and Bangladesh, but Bangladeshi officials delayed the returns at the last minute, saying more time was needed amid questions about safety and whether the refugees were returning voluntarily.
Forsyth noted that international organizations do not have access to many areas affected by the crisis in Myanmar.
"As well as security, we need to be able to provide humanitarian support for people when they return. And at the moment those conditions aren't in place," he said.
Rohingya have long faced repression in Myanmar. They are widely dismissed as having migrated illegally from Bangladesh and are denied some of the most basic rights, including the freedom of movement. In 1982, nearly all Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship rights.
Associated Press writer Foster Klug in Yangon, Myanmar, contributed to this report.