UN Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh Mia Seppo has called for a stop to conflicts that escalated in Myanmar's Rakhine state and caused displacement of thousands of people further worsening the situation during the coronavirus pandemic.
"Covid-19 has stopped many things, but it doesn't seem to have stopped war. Conflicts have continued to grow, and with them the number of refugees and displaced persons," she said at a webinar titled "Rohingya Today" organised by the Centre for Peace Studies, of South Asian Institute of Policy and Governance (SIPG) of the North South University today.
The Arakan Army, an ethnic Buddhist rebel group seeking more autonomy in Rakhine, has been fighting the Myanmar Army, but the infighting intensified since late 2018 and aggravated further since January this year.
Mia Seppo said one key step toward improving the situation in Myanmar would be for all to heed the UN Secretary General's call for "an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world," including in Myanmar's Rakhine State.
"This asymmetrical fighting is taking a heavy toll on the civilian population. There have been burning of Rakhine villages, which echo the tactics used against Rohingya communities in 2016 and 2017," the top UN official in Bangladesh said.
Some 750,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh as Myanmar military conducted a brutal operation against them in 2017.
Over the past two months, local media reports say that 86 civilians died and more than 200 have been injured in Rakhine. The Rakhine state government reports at least 76,000 internally displaced persons.
Access for UN and international organizations carrying out humanitarian and development work remains very constrained, Mia Seppo said, amplifying the UN Secretary General's call for ceasefires and respect for international humanitarian law.
The concern for security in Rakhine grows when repatriation of the nearly one million Rohingya sheltered in Cox's Bazar hangs in balance as Rohingyas say they don't see any safety and guarantee of citizenship back in Rakhine.
Former Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque said Myanmar has always been oppressive towards the minorities of Myanmar and the same continues unabated.
The UN should create more pressure on the Myanmar for reforms and consider creating a safe zone in Rakhine so that the Rohingya can return, said Haque, a senior fellow at the Centre for Peace Studies of NSU.
Noting the five deaths and infection of 50 Rohingyas due to Covid-19 in the Rohingya camps in Cox's Bazar, Mia Seppo said the actual numbers could be higher.
"The worst is, unfortunately, likely still to come," she said, adding that protection concerns for the Rohingyas in the camps are growing as community and educational facilities remain temporarily closed and limited presence of humanitarian staff.
"We are seeing increased reports of sexual-and gender-based violence, primarily against women, gang violence, and physical violence," Mia Seppo said, terming it a worrying trend.
"What we urgently need is full access to the Internet and restrictions lifted. The refugees should have a right to information just like anyone else. Having a functioning network and devices will be indispensable to combat the pandemic."