Arakan Army recruits scale the climbing ropes at the Laiza, Kachin State base camp.
FILE - Arakan Army recruits scale the climbing ropes at the Laiza, Kachin state, base camp. (Steve Sandford/VOA)

GENEVA - The U.N. human rights office is calling for an end to escalating clashes between Myanmar’s army and the ethnic armed group known as the Arakan Army in Rakhine and Chin states as civilian casualties rise.

The conflict is playing out against the backdrop of the recent deaths of dozens of Rohingya refugees and hundreds of others stranded at sea for two months after fleeing persecution in Myanmar.

The fatalities at sea are not specifically related to the fighting between the Myanmar army and Arakan Army armed group. But observers say it is symptomatic of the persecution and discrimination against ethnic minorities that have provoked armed rebellion against the government for years.

U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said Friday that the current spike in violence between the government and rebels was affecting civilians of all ethnic groups living in Rakhine and neighboring Chin state, including Rohingya, Chin, Mro, Daignet and others.

“Myanmar’s military has been carrying out almost daily airstrikes and shelling in populated areas resulting in at least 32 deaths and 71 injuries since the 23rd of March, and the majority of those were women and children," he said. "They have also been destroying and burning schools and homes.”

Colville said the warring parties had ignored U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for a global cease-fire during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the current dire situation was further complicated by the government’s internet blackout since June 2019, the longest in the world, in nine townships across Rakhine and Chin states.

"This blackout has greatly hampered the availability of reliable public information on hygiene, physical distancing precautions and other preventative measures," Colville said. "Internet restrictions have also been applied by the Bangladesh authorities to the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.”

The U.N. human rights office is calling on the Myanmar government to immediately lift the internet ban and grant humanitarian access to all conflict-affected areas. U.N. officials warn failure to do so will worsen the suffering of civilians and hamper efforts to fight the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.