The United Kingdom urged Myanmar’s military Thursday to extend its recently announced ceasefire to include the escalating conflict in northern Rakhine and Chin states where civilians are suffering a heavy toll at the time of the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.K. Mission to the United Nations made the appeal after a closed meeting of the U.N. Security Council that it called because of growing concern about fighting in the two states between government forces and the Arakan Army, a well-armed guerrilla force representing the Buddhist Rakhine minority.
A mission statement said the pandemic is putting vulnerable people “at risk of a humanitarian emergency,” especially refugees, the displaced and the Rohingya Muslim minority, which faces additional restrictions.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh from Rakhine after Myanmar security forces launched a crackdown in August 2017 in response to an attack by a Rohingya insurgent group. Bangladesh currently houses over 1 million Rohingya refugees.
The council did not issue a statement after the meeting, which heard a briefing by Christine Schraner Burgener, the U.N. special envoy for Myanmar.
But four European Union council members – Estonia, Belgium, France and Germany – and former council member Poland also expressed concern about the military escalation in Rakhine and Chin states and called for “an immediate, comprehensive and nationwide ceasefire.”
The EU members emphasized “the importance of an inclusive response to the COVID-19 pandemic that protects all communities and takes into account the vulnerability of refugees and internally displaced persons.”
In late April, the U.N. human rights investigator on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, called for a new investigation into allegations and crimes against humanity during the recent fighting in Rakhine and Chin. She accused Myanmar’s military of “inflicting immense suffering” on ethnic minorities in the two states.
Lee linked the current situation in Rakhine and Chin to the government’s actions against the Rohingya, for which no senior officers have faced justice and token punishments were given to a handful of low-ranking security personnel.
The U.K. mission said the conflict in Rakhine and Chin has forced more people to flee their homes, restricted access for humanitarian workers and increased civilian casualties, including the killing of a World Health Organization employee on April 20.
The EU members strongly condemned the deadly attack on the WHO vehicle that killed the employee and backed Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ appeal for a global ceasefire.
The U.K. said it recognizes that Myanmar is taking steps to address the pandemic, including measures to slow the spread of the virus.
“The U.K. supports these initial positive steps,” the U.K. statement said. “However, while conflict continues in Rakhine and Chin States, vulnerable people there are at even greater risk than elsewhere from COVID-19.”
“The conflict also makes it more challenging to address the long-term underlying causes of conflict in Rakhine and to create conditions conducive to the safe, voluntary, and dignified repatriation of Rohingya refugees, which remains an important and urgent priority,” the U.K. said.
Both the U.K. and EU countries urged Myanmar to address the underlying causes of the conflicts.