New York, September 8, 2017 – Ethnic Rohingya Muslims fleeing Burmese security forces in Burma’s Rakhine State have described killings, shelling, and arson in their villages that have all the hallmarks of a campaign of “ethnic cleansing,” Human Rights Watch said today.
Burmese army, police, and ethnic Rakhine armed groups have carried out operations against predominantly Rohingya villages since the August 25, 2017 attacks by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants against about 30 police posts and an army base. Burmese army commander Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing told the media that the government-approved military clearance operations in Rakhine State was “unfinished business” dating back to the Second World War.
The United Nations Security Council should hold a public emergency meeting and warn the Burmese authorities that they will face severe sanctions unless they put an end to the brutal campaign against the Rohingya population.
“Rohingya refugees have harrowing accounts of fleeing Burmese army attacks and watching their villages be destroyed,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Lawful operations against armed groups do not involve burning the local population out of their homes.”
In early September, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 50 Rohingya refugees who had fled across the border to Bangladesh and obtained detailed accounts from about a dozen people. The Rohingya told Human Rights Watch that Burmese government security forces had carried out armed attacks on villagers, inflicting bullet and shrapnel injuries, and burned down their homes. They described the military’s use of small arms, mortars, and armed helicopters in the attacks.
Human Rights Watch obtained satellite data and images that are consistent with widespread burnings in northern Rakhine State, encompassing the townships of Rathedaung, Buthidaung, and Maungdaw. To date, Human Rights Watch has found 21 unique locations where heat sensing technology on satellites identified significant, large fires. Knowledgeable sources in Bangladesh told Human Rights Watch that they heard the distinctive sounds of heavy and light machinegun fire and mortar shelling in villages just across the border in Burma, and spotted smoke arising from these villages shortly afterwards.
The Burmese government has denied security force abuses, claiming that it is engaged in a counterterrorism operation in which nearly 400 people have been killed, most of them suspected militants. The Burmese authorities assert, without substantiating their claims, that militants and Rohingya villagers have burned 6,845 houses across 60 villages in northern Rakhine State. Refugee accounts contradict the claims of Burmese officials, Human Rights Watch said.
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For example, Momena, a 32-year-old Rohingya woman from Maungdaw Township, said that she fled to Bangladesh on August 26, a day after security forces attacked her village. She first hid with her children when the soldiers arrived, but returning to the village she said she saw 40 to 50 villagers dead, including some children and elderly people: “All had knife wounds or bullet wounds, some had both. My father was among the dead; his neck had been cut open. I was unable to do last rites for my father – I just fled.”
At the Cox’s Bazar hospital, Human Right Watch interviewed several Rohingya with bullet wounds. Some said they were hit while at home, others said they were shot when running for safety from their villages, or while hiding in the fields or hills from Burmese soldiers.
Usman Goni, 20, said that he and five friends were in the hills outside their village, tending cattle, when they were attacked. He saw a helicopter flying overhead and then something fall out of it. He later realized he had been hit by whatever the helicopter dropped. Four of his friends died from fragment injuries while villagers transported Goni to Bangladesh for treatment. The fragments in his torso had not yet been removed when Human Rights Watch met him in the hospital.
Human Rights Watch’s initial investigations of the current situation in Rakhine State are indicative of an ethnic cleansing campaign. Although “ethnic cleansing” is not formally defined under international law, a UN commission of experts has defined the term as a “purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas…. This purpose appears to be the occupation of territory to the exclusion of the purged group or groups.”
“There is no indication that the horrors we and others are uncovering in Rakhine State are letting up,” Ganguly said. “The United Nations and concerned governments need to press Burma right now to end these horrific abuses against the Rohingya as a first step toward restoring Rohingya to their homes.”
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