Myanmar has waged “a campaign of ethnic cleansing” against Rohingya Muslims, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said yesterday, citing evidence of mass graves and forced displacement of thousands.
The Rohingya, who are denied citizenship by Myanamar, have faced crimes against humanity including murder, persecution, deportation and forced transfer, the New York-based rights watchdog said.
Burmese officials, community leaders and Buddhist monks organized and encouraged mobs — backed by state security forces — to conduct coordinated attacks on Muslim villages in October last year in Rakhine State, HRW said.
“While the state security forces in some instances intervened to prevent violence and protect fleeing Muslims, more frequently they stood aside during attacks or directly supported the assailants, committing killings and other abuses,” the report said of the unrest.
“The Burmese government engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement,” HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said.
The report was released on the same day that the EU was expected to lift all remaining sanctions against Myanmar, except an arms embargo, in a move Robertson said was “premature and unfortunate” and would diminish the EU’s leverage with the country.
The situation in Rakhine “if allowed to fester will ultimately threaten the larger effort towards reforms,” Robertson told reporters in Bangkok, Thailand.
Burmese presidential spokesman Ye Htut accused the group of timing its report to coincide with the EU sanctions decision.
“The [Burmese] government will not pay attention to such a one-sided report,” he said on Facebook.
He said that the authorities would instead await the findings of an official commission set up to investigate the violence, whose release has been delayed several times.
HRW said that while “ethnic cleansing” was not a formal legal term, it was generally defined as a policy by one ethnic or religious group to expel another group from an area using violence and terror.
In Rakhine, more than 125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims have been forcibly displaced, denied access to humanitarian aid and are unable to return home, the group said.
Burmese government data cited by HRW show that 211 people died in two outbreaks of Buddhist-Muslim violence in Rakhine since June 2012, but the group said it believed the real figure was much higher.
In a report based on more than 100 interviews, it said that it had uncovered evidence of four mass graves in Rakhine.
In one episode in June last year, a government truck dumped 18 naked and half-clothed bodies near a camp for displaced Rohingya, describing it as an attempt to scare them into leaving, the group said.
In another incident, more than 70 Rohingya, among them 28 children and infants, were hacked to death in Mrauk-U Township’s Yan Thei Village in October last year after police and soldiers disarmed them and failed to protect them from a mob.
Myanmar views its population of roughly 800,000 Rohingya as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Thousands have fled Myanmar since June on rickety boats, mostly believed to be heading for Malaysia after Bangladesh refused them entry.
Other Muslims were also targeted in violence last month in central Myanmar, where at least 43 people were killed.
Meanwhile, the BBC yesterday released footage that appeared to show Burmese police standing by as Buddhist rioters attacked Muslims in the town of Meiktila in March.
The British broadcaster said that in one case, police looked on as a severely burned man lay on the ground unaided.
Robertson said that “impunity” in Rakhine had encouraged extremists in other parts of the country.
“The central government has taken no action to punish those responsible or reverse the ethnic cleansing of the forcibly displaced Muslims,” he said.