A Rohingya refugee pulls a child as they walk to the shore after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat © Reuters

The “brutal” Myanmar crackdown against Muslim Rohingya people “seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, the UN human rights chief has said, piling pressure on world powers to respond more strongly to the deadly violence.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein urged Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to end a “cruel military operation” that had driven more than a quarter of a million people to flee killings and the torching of villages to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Mr Zeid’s remarks will focus attention on the largely cautious international diplomatic response to a crisis that has triggered heavy criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate long feted in the west for her fight against military dictatorship.

It will also add to questions about the relationship of foreign powers with General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military, who has been hosted by countries such as Germany, Austria and Japan this year. 

Mr Zeid told the UN human rights council in Geneva on Monday that his agency had received “multiple reports and satellite imagery of security forces and local militia burning Rohingya villages”, as well as “consistent accounts of extrajudicial killings, including shooting fleeing civilians”.

He added: “The operation . . . is clearly disproportionate and without regard for basic principles of international law.” He said that while information was still being gathered, the situation looked like a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. 

The UN says at least 313,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh since August 25. Militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) militia targeted about 30 police posts and an army base in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine that day, killing several people and prompting a fierce military backlash.

Rohingya refugees arriving in Bangladesh have said that security forces and vigilantes fired on fleeing people and set fire to their villages. Myanmar restricts journalists’ and other foreigners’ access to the zones of violence, but satellite images show widespread burning, and pillars of smoke have been seen by reporters and others in Rakhine and in Bangladesh.

Myanmar’s government says it is fighting terrorism and is committed to upholding the human rights of all the country’s people. The Rohingya, who numbered more than 1m before the wave of violence, are mostly deprived of citizenship and have other rights curbed because Myanmar sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Human Rights Watch on Monday called on the UN, multilateral organisations and “countries with influence” to press Myanmar’s government to allow humanitarian aid to reach Rohingya people at risk in Rakhine. 

More than 300,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh since August 25 © Getty

Many world powers have issued only mild statements in response to the crisis. Critics say some western countries are holding back because they do not want to be seen to undermine either the position of Aung San Suu Kyi or the viability of the country’s six-and-a-half-year-old transition from almost half a century of military rule. The military still has huge powers and is seen by most analysts as above the control of Myanmar’s civilian-led government.

Patrick Murphy, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia, called on Friday for a “responsible reaction” by Myanmar’s security forces to the attacks on them. He added that the US was pointing out “some shortcomings” in the actions of Myanmar’s government and armed forces.

While international criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi has been intense, human rights groups have said that pressure should also be brought to bear on General Min Aung Hlaing. The general issues regular social media updates on his world travels, including last month to Japan, where he met Shinzo Abe, the prime minister. In July, he met Narendra Modi, India’s premier, while in April he visited senior defence officials in Germany and Austria. 

Twitter: @mikepeeljourno, @JohnReedwrites

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