UN chief Antonio Guterres acknowledged Wednesday that Rohingya Muslims were being ethnically cleansed in Myanmar as he called for a halt to a military campaign in Rakhine state.
Speaking ahead of a Security Council meeting to discuss the worsening humanitarian crisis there, Guterres described reports of security forces attacking civilians in Rakhine as "disturbing" and "completely unacceptable."
"I call on the Myanmar authorities to suspend military action, end the violence, uphold the rule of law and recognize the right of return of all those who had to leave the country," the secretary general said in a press conference.
Asked if he agreed the Rohingya population was being ethnically cleansed, he replied: "When one-third of the Rohingya population has got to flee the country, can you find a better word to describe it?"
The crackdown by Myanmar's army, which followed attacks by Rohingya militants late last month, has prompted around 380,000 to flee across the border into neighboring Bangladesh.
Guterres called for authorities "to assure the delivery of vital humanitarian aid" in Rakhine state, with thousands of Rohingya still crossing the border every day.
The 1.1-million strong Rohingya have suffered years of discrimination in Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship even though many have longstanding roots in the country.
But Guterres said that the Myanmar government should either grant the Rohingya nationality or legal status that would allow them to live a normal life.
Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been widely condemned for a lack of moral leadership and compassion in the face of the crisis, denting the Nobel peace laureate's reputation.
However Suu Kyi, Myanmar's first civilian leader in decades, has no control over the powerful military, which ran the country for 50 years before elections in 2015.
The Security Council met behind closed doors at the request of Britain and Sweden to try to agree on a response to the crisis, but diplomats said they expected China and Russia to resist calls for a strong statement.
"We need to see an end to the violence. We need to see immediate and widespread access to humanitarian aid and relief for the people of Burma and the people of Rakhine," British Deputy UN Ambassador Jonathan Allen told reporters ahead of the meeting, referring to Myanmar by its name under British colonial rule.
Swedish Ambassador Olof Skoog said he hoped for a "unified outcome" and "clear messages about what needs to happen now."
That message should be that "the military campaign that we have seen is stopped and that there is full respect for human rights and international humanitarian law," said Skoog.