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More than a quarter-million Rohingya have fled Burma in the past two weeks, U.N. says

A house burns in the village of Gawduthar, in the Burmese state of Rakhine, on Sept. 7. (Reuters)
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On Friday, the United Nations' refugee agency significantly revised upward its estimate of how many Rohingya people had fled Burma to neighboring Bangladesh over the past two weeks, to 270,000 from just 125,000 earlier this week.

Renewed violence has engulfed Burma's Rakhine state, where tension between the mostly Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority and the country's Burmese and largely Buddhist majority have simmered and flared for decades. Some 300,000 and 500,000 Rohingya already lived in refugee camps in Bangladesh before this summer. An estimated 1.1 million remained in Burma. Since Aug. 25, nearly a quarter of that remaining population has reportedly fled.

Human rights groups and journalists have been reporting a statewide scorched-earth campaign by Burmese security forces to kill or otherwise expel Rohingya from the country. A BBC reporter who was on a government-chaperoned trip around Rakhine state said he spoke with Burmese men who admitted to burning a Rohingya village with the help of local police. The U.N.'s special rapporteur on Burma — also known as Myanmar — said Friday that more than 1,000 mostly Rohingya people may have been killed over the past two weeks.

Who are the Rohingya people and why are they leaving Burma?

The most recent violence was sparked, as it had been last year, by a coordinated attack on Burmese military and police outposts by Rohingya militants. While the ragtag Rohingya militancy does have loose support from individuals in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, most analysts regard it as an operation focused on defense and revenge against the Burmese military. The Burmese government accuses the militancy of aiming to create an Islamic state in Rakhine.

Burma denies citizenship rights to the Rohingya, despite evidence of their presence along the Rakhine coast for generations, if not centuries. The Burmese government instead refers to them as Bengalis, tying them rhetorically to populations in Bangladesh with whom they share closer linguistic, religious and ethnic similarities.

Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said that aid workers had found groups of uncounted people which might account for Friday's enormous spike in estimated refugees.

“This does not necessarily reflect fresh arrivals within the past 24 hours, but that we have identified more people in different areas that we were not aware of,” she told Reuters, adding that the number was an estimate and there could be some double-counting.

Rohingya refugees have been setting up makeshift camps that abut larger, more established ones. The conditions are squalid, and the crush of new arrivals has stretched aid agencies thin. Burma's government says 30,000 non-Rohingya have also been displaced by the conflict.

Large protests in support of the Rohingya and against the Burmese government have taken place across the Muslim world this week, and influential figures from Malala Yousafzai to Desmond Tutu to John McCain have issued sharply worded appeals to de facto Burmese leader and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to intervene — or at the very least speak out. Suu Kyi has echoed the military's line for the most part, and has said she does not consider the Rohingya to be Burmese citizens.

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