INTERNATIONAL divisions have opened up over the refugee crisis in Myanmar which has been described as ethnic cleansing by a senior United Nations official.

China yesterday voiced its support support for a military crackdown by the Myanmar Government, which has been interpreted as Beijing’s attempt to head off any attempt to censure Myanmar at the United Nations Security Council when it meets today to discuss the crisis.

China was one of the few foreign friends of Myanmar’s former junta and is a supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government.

The current crisis began when militants from Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority attacked police posts in the western Rakine state on August 25, prompting a military backlash that has so far resulted in a third of the Muslim minority population fleeing their homes.

Rohingya refugees have accused soldiers and Buddhist mobs who burned their villages to the ground of committing a number of atrocities. The claims cannot be independently verified as access to Rakhine state is heavily controlled.

Myanmar’s government denies any abuses and instead blames militants for burning down thousands of villages, including many belonging to Rohingya.

But international pressure on Myanmar increased this week after United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the violence seemed to be a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. The US also expressed concern over the violence.

Aung San Suu Kyi was once one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners when she was under house arrest for 15 years between 1989 and 2010.

She is now accused of turning a blind eye to – or even abetting – a humanitarian catastrophe.

But China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang yesterday praised her Government’s efforts to “uphold peace and stability” in Rakhine. “We hope order and the normal life there will be recovered as soon as possible,” he told a press briefing.

Bangladesh’s prime minister yesterday urged Myanmar to take back the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled the violence in Rakhine state.

Visiting a refugee camp, Sheikh Hasina urged Myanmar to view the situation with humanity, saying innocent people were suffering.

An estimated 370,000 Rohingya have entered Bangladesh since August 25, said Joseph Tripura, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency.

The real figure may be higher as many new arrivals are still on the move making it difficult to include them in the count, the UN said. Sixty per cent of refugees are children.

Most are in dire need of food, medical care and shelter after trekking for days through hills and jungles or braving dangerous boat journeys.

Bangladeshi sources say Myanmar’s army recently planted new mines – an allegation denied by Myanmar officials.

Bangladesh is already home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas who have fled previous outbreaks of violence in Myanmar.

Sheikh Hasina’s comments came as she visited the Kutupalong camp, one of two official refugee camps which are both full. Aid agencies say the new arrivals desperately need food, shelter and medical help.

“My personal message is very clear, that they should consider this situation with the eyes of humanity,” she said. “Because these people, innocent people, the children, women ... they are suffering. So these people, they belong to Myanmar. For hundreds of years they have been staying there. How can they deny that they are not their citizens?”

The Bangladesh prime minister said her country would offer Rohingyas shelter until Myanmar took them back.

She also condemned the militants for their role in the violence, but said Myanmar’s government should have dealt with the situation more patiently.

Rohingya families have been arriving in Bangladesh from Myanmar in waves since the 1970s. About 32,000 registered refugees live in the two official camps, but more than 300,000 undocumented Rohingyas were also estimated to be in Bangladesh before this latest influx.

Bangladesh says their presence strains local resources, increases crime and deters tourists.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s foreign ministry has defended the military for doing their “legitimate duty to restore stability”, saying troops were under orders “to exercise all due restraint, and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage”.

Britain and Sweden requested the urgent United Nations Security Council meeting today amid growing international concern over the ongoing violence. The council met behind closed doors in late August to discuss the violence, but could not agree a formal statement.