Dozens of Rohingya Muslims were killed in the villages of Western Myanmar over the weekend as violence intensified between the persecuted minority and the country’s security forces.
Satellite images which were released by the international NGO, Human Rights Watch showed torched villages, with the group identifying a total of 430 destroyed buildings in Maungdaw, a township which is home to the Muslim Rohingya minority and borders Bangladesh. Of this total, 85 buildings were destroyed in the village of Pyaung Pyit (Ngar Sar Kyu), 245 in Kyet Yoe Pyin, and 100 in Wa Peik (Kyee Kan Pyin); all of which are in the northern Rakhine state.
Signs of damage in each of the assessed villages were consistent with fire, including the presence of large burn scars and destroyed tree cover. Because of dense tree cover it is possible that the actual number of destroyed buildings is higher. The photos were all taken on the mornings of October 22, November 3, and November 10, 2016, following reports of fighting and civilians fleeing last month.
Human Rights Watch’s Asia Director Brad Adams said in a statement that “New satellite images not only confirm the widespread destruction of Rohingya villages but show that it was even greater than we first thought, Burmese [Myanmar] authorities should promptly establish a UN-assisted investigation as a first step toward ensuring justice and security for the victims.”
In addition to satellite imagery reviewed by Human Rights Watch, reports by human rights organizations, the media, and members of a delegation of nine foreign ambassadors who visited some impacted areas on November 2-3 confirm that the damage was substantial. The delegation conducted no formal investigation or assessment but confirmed that they saw burned structures in several towns.
Images and videos on social media showed women and children were among those killed, including a baby.
The military and government have rejected allegations that troops have burned Rohingya villages, accusing insurgents of lighting the fires in order to “cause misunderstanding and tension” and in an attempt to discredit the Burma Army, known locally as the Tatmadaw as well as to get international aid. An early statement also said that government troops were ambushed by attackers who were armed with guns, knives and spears. These theories are being viewed with scepticism by most observers.
“Since the violence last month, villagers have been accused of burning their own houses. Villagers are hiding in the forest. No one dares to live in their own house because of the arrests and killing,” said a teacher from Kyein Chaung village, who was reached by telephone and asked not to be named.
He said some students had told him that their villages had been set on fire. “One of my pupils said he was hiding in the rice field. The connection then went dead,” he said.
He added that he saw a police truck taking at least six bodies from the village on Sunday. Other villagers, also speaking on condition of anonymity because they feared for their safety, said the people whose bodies they saw were completely unarmed.
A local police officer refused to answer any questions related to the situation, saying he was not allowed to say anything. The Rakhine state government also refused to comment.
The UK-based Rohingya organisation, The Burmese Rohingya Group says as many as 1,500 civilians have been displaced by the violence in addition to the 100,000 who were forced into displacement camps in 2012 after communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims left scores dead.
Rohingya activists say the government is trying systematically to drive the Muslim minority from their villages.
Rohingya Muslims, a minority numbering about 1.1 million in a Buddhist-majority country, are the majority in Rakhine. Although they have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are widely regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and subsequently referred to as Bengali. The government denies citizenship to most and they also face severe discrimination including travel restrictions. Human rights groups accuse the army of abuse against the Rohingya community including murder, rape and the burning of homes. However they claim Rohingya Muslims are radicalised Islamist militants with links to overseas militants including Isis.
In September, a Rakhine official, Colonel Htein Lin, said the government would destroy all “illegally” built structures, including more than 2,500 houses, 600 shops, a dozen mosques and more than 30 schools.
Three women, ages 23, 21 and 17, were raped by soldiers living in the local school, said Mohamed Rahim, a village leader in Pyoung Pai, not far from Kyikanpyin.
“The villagers were told to gather in the rice fields, but the three girls were told to stay in the house with their mother,” he said in a telephone interview. “Before the rape, they told the mother to get out. I then saw the military enter the house.”
Myanmar officials deny that rapes have occurred. A leader of the Arakan National Party, U Aung Win told the BBC in an interview that it was impossible that soldiers had raped the women because Rohingya “are very dirty.”
At one point he also said: “It’s not so easy to rape a Bengali woman. All the Bengali villages are covered by bamboo netting and plastic.”
The question of the rapes is particularly sensitive. The government also allegedly pressured The Myanmar Times to fire one of its editors, Fiona MacGregor for writing an article about rapes of Rohingya women on October 19
On October 28, Reuters published interviews with Rohingya women who allege that Burmese soldiers raped them.
The allegations come at a time of heightened tensions between the authorities and the ethnic Rohingya community that has seen the government arm non-Muslim civilians in Rakhine and renewed crackdowns on the Rohingya.
This weekend’s operation marks the latest and potentially most serious escalation of violence since October 9 in which gunmen attacked three police outposts in Maungdaw, leaving nine police officers dead. The government said that attack was carried out by Islamic militants and immediately put the area on military lockdown, halting all access for humanitarian workers and journalists making it difficult to verify the government reports or accusations of army abuse as well as the full scale of the violence. Newswire, Reuters has reported that the military has ignored the civilian government’s request for more information about the situation. A second attack on a border guard post in Maungdaw was reported to have occurred on viagra pas cher france November 3. The attack is said to have resulted in the death of one police officer.
Immediately after the attacks, government forces declared Maungdaw an “operation zone” and began conducting sweeps of the area to find the attackers and lost weapons that observers have linked to widespread destruction of Rohingya homes.
Soldiers have killed at least 58 people and arrested scores in their hunt for the attackers, who the government immediately blamed on two little-known groups: Aqa Mul Mujahidin and the Rohingya Solidarity Organization with little proof. Actual responsibility still remains unclear.
Several Rohingya leaders said they did not believe Rohingya ties to radical jihadists were the cause of the attacks. New, harsh proposals by the government may have been the catalyst, they suggested.
The attacks were “clearance operations” targeting armed militants, the army said. However the government of Myanmar has admitted firing on villages occupied by the Rohingya Muslim minority with helicopter gunships. The country’s state-controlled newspaper, The Global New Light of Myanmar claimed two soldiers and six attackers were killed in a subsequent ambush.
Also on Saturday, a police car was hit by the blast from a roadside mine near the village of Kyikanpyin, north of Maungdaw, where five of the nine police officers were killed on Oct. 9, according to the Ministry of Information in Naypyidaw, the capital. No one was killed in the blast on Saturday.
The government said in a statement that 28 people described as violent attackers were killed Sunday in Maungdaw district. An earlier statement said six attackers died on Saturday, in addition to the two government soldiers. The attackers weren’t identified, but the army has aligned with Rakhine Buddhists against the Rohingya.
Around 500 people were involved in the clash.
Leader of the Arakan National Party, U Aung Win, said it was now necessary to form a special paramilitary force and train a civilian security force made of non-Muslim recruits.
The Rohingya make up more than 90% of Northern Rakinine State’s population, outnumbering the Rakhine Buddhists, so more protection is needed for the Buddhist minority, Mr. Aung Win said. The two groups cannot live together, he insisted. Aung Win is also the chairman of the Rakhine State investigation into the Oct. 9 attacks.
It is unlikely, in the wake of this weekend’s violence, that the country will find a quick resolution to the fighting, say observers and diplomats.
Every year thousands of Muslim Rohingya brave perilous land and sea routes in rickety traffickers’ boats similar to this one in a desperate attempt to reach Malaysia and Indonesia. The outbreaks of sectarian violence have prompted many to flee. “An entire population feels their only option is to seek asylum by sea,” Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights told German media outlet, Deutsche Welle.The figure of Rohingya trafficked in Thailand since 2012 could be as high as a quarter million.
Seeking to flee discrimination, the Rohingya usually contact a broker who deceives them to think they will be taken directly to Malaysia for the equivalent of up to $200, says Smith. Throughout the journey they’re denied adequate food, water, and space, and subjected to beatings, and sometimes killings. The boats travel to Thai waters where they are transported to a makeshift jungle camp onshore until a ransom is paid by their family back home following the Thai government’s recent crackdown on human trafficking, after the discovery of several mass graves, many smugglers have taken new measures, putting the migrants’ lives at greater risk.
Southeast Asia is being hit by a wave of migrants, partly driven by conflict, persecution and poverty. The Asia-Pacific region recently recorded an estimated 11.7 million trafficked people, the highest figure of any region. The Greater-Mekong Sub-region encompassing Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam features some of the most extensive flows of migration and human trafficking.
The resurgence of violence in western Rakhine has deepened and complicated a crisis that already posed a critical challenge to the new administration led by democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. However the security forces in Rakhine are controlled by the army not the country’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The crisis and reports of grave rights abuses being carried out in tandem with the security crackdown have piled international pressure on Myanmar’s new civilian government and raised questions about its ability to control its military.
Western diplomats have called on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who leads Myanmar’s government, to conduct an independent investigation into the violence. So far, she has declined, allowing a Rakhine State committee to investigate. She has also urged that specific complaints be filed with a commission headed by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, that was formed in August.
The government recently granted the World Food Programme (WFP) access to four villages for a one-time food delivery. However, humanitarian aid groups continue to be denied full access, placing tens of thousands of already vulnerable people at greater risk. The vast majority of villages are not receiving any assistance, and the area remains sealed to humanitarian assessment teams and human rights groups.
A statement by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on November 8 noted that the children in Rakhine State suffer from high levels of deprivation and malnutrition: “Their futures depend on help from doctors, nurses, teachers and others who can provide them with nutrition, health and education services,” the statement said.
Myanmar is obligated under international law to conduct thorough, prompt, and impartial investigations of alleged human rights violations, prosecute those responsible, and provide adequate redress for victims of violations. It’s failure to conduct such investigations in the past underscores the need for UN assistance, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Burmese government and military should immediately allow humanitarian access to vulnerable populations,” Adams said. “The UN and concerned governments need to dial up the pressure on the authorities to ensure aid reaches all affected areas as this crisis enters its second month.”
“Pressure must be brought to bear on the government and military to end all human-rights violations, including arbitrary executions, arrests, beatings, torture, forced relocations, blocking of humanitarian aid, burning of homes and businesses, and the mass rape of ethnic Rohingya women by the security forces. They must also ensure that the civilian population is protected,” the group said in a statement.
The U.S. has also called for an independent investigation into allegations of abuse.