Attacks on Rohingya Muslims appear to be continuing in Burma 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 has said.
Many Rohingya want to return eventually to their villages in Burma, Unicef deputy executive director Justin Forsyth said 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 (Burma). And they were attacking villages even today.”
More than 680,000 Rohingya fled Burma’s Rakhine state beginning in August, after Burma security forces began “clearance operations” in their villages in the wake of attacks by Rohingya insurgents on police posts.
Mr Forsyth’s comments came as former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson resigned suddenly from an advisory panel on the crisis, calling it a “whitewash and a cheerleading operation” for Burma leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
“She blames all the problems that Burma is having on the international media, on the UN, 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,” Mr Richardson said.
Once a close friend of Mr Suu Kyi, he said in an interview in Rangoon, Burma's largest city, that he believed his advice and counsel" would not be heeded.
Mr Richardson said Ms Suu Kyi appeared to want the 10-member international advisory group, one in a string of Rohingya commissions set up by the Burma government, to endorse her policies.
He said that Ms Suu Kyi had been "furious" when he raised the case of two Reuters reporters who are on trial accused of breaching the country’s Officials Secrets Act while covering the crisis.
“Her face was quivering, and if she had been a little closer to me, she might have hit me, she was so furious,” Mr Richardson told the New York Times.
"She has developed an arrogance of power.
"I’ve known her a long time and am fond of her, but she basically is unwilling to listen to bad news, and I don’t want to be part of a whitewash.”
But Ms Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, retaliated, saying that Mr Richardson has over-stepped the mark and misunderstood the remit of the advisory group.
“He needs to understand clearly that he is supposed to give advice only about the Rakhine issue, not everything about Myanmar," he said.
“He cannot say whatever he wants to say.
“(Richardson) talked on a topic outside the agenda of the meetings and went beyond the framework.
“We feel sorry for his resignation due to the misunderstanding.”
A Myanmar government spokesman said Mr Richardson “should review himself over his personal attack against our state counsellor”.
But Mr Richardson, who often works as an international troubleshooter, said: “One of my objectives in joining the advisory board was to be helpful and try to sort out real, long-term policy solutions.
“But I discovered that this board was being used as a cheerleading squad for the government.
“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.
“I just felt that my advice and counsel would not be heeded."
Gradual repatriations of Rohingya were to begin on Tuesday under agreements signed by Burma 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.
After documents and lists of people need to be exchanged between the two governments, Burma will then check the returnees to see if they are on the lists, said Ko Ko Thaw, an immigration officer at the reception camp in the northern part of Rakhine. Only refugees with identity documents, which most Rohingya lack, will be allowed back into Burma.
Mr Forsyth noted that international organisations do not have access to many areas affected by the crisis in Burma.
“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.
Officials from Burma earlier invited selected journalists to the border to show it is ready for a gradual repatriation.
Workers on the Burma side of the border with Bangladesh were laying bricks, digging ditches and drilling holes in building frames.
But refugees have spoken of their terror about returning to a place where they say their homes were burned, women were raped and their friends, relatives and neighbours slaughtered.
Rohingya have long faced repression in Burma. 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.