Burma’s government was accused on Monday by a major international rights group of engaging in ethnic cleansing against Muslims in the country’s westernmost state, during waves of violence last year that left at least 180 people dead and 120,000 displaced.
In an extensive report released the same day the European Union was expected to permanently lift economic sanctions against the former pariah state, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the government and security forces in Arakan State committed “crimes against humanity” during clashes between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims in June and October.
The New York-based rights group accused state security forces of backing Burmese officials, community leaders and Buddhist monks to “conduct coordinated attacks on Muslim neighborhoods and villages in October 2012 to terrorize and forcibly relocate the population.”
The government quickly rejected the report as “one-sided” and “unacceptable.”
HRW interviewed more than 100 survivors, witnesses and alleged perpetrators of the violence for its 153-page report, which examined the role of Burma’s government and local authorities in the conflict, as well as the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Arakan State.
The rights group said that although security forces sometimes tried to stop the bloodshed, they more often watched clashes unfold or directly participated in them.
As rioters torched houses to the ground, the report said, one soldier told a Muslim, “The only thing you can do is pray to save your lives.”
After the first wave of clashes erupted in June, HRW said in its report that Burmese authorities destroyed mosques and blocked aid to displaced Muslims, mostly from the ethnic Rohingya Muslim group.
The rights watchdog accused authorities of failing to intervene in the following months when Buddhist monks and the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) issued anti-Rohingya pamphlets that called for the ethnic Muslim minority to be removed from Burma and at times reportedly used the phrase “ethnic cleansing.”
“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,” Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in the report.
The rights watchdog accused the government of “obstructing the effective delivery of humanitarian aid” to overcrowded camps for internally displaced persons, where humanitarian aid workers say they lack adequate food, water and medical supplies.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said government red tape slowed the delivery of aid to displaced persons in the state.
“Things like visas and travel authorizations can take a long time in coming, and if you’re trying to run an operation, having these bureaucratic hurdles to overcome really delays aid,” OCHA spokeswoman Kirsten Mildren told the Irrawaddy on Monday, adding that her organization was working with the government to streamline the process.
“Certain NGOs are not being granted access to certain areas because of security concerns,” she said. “We strongly advocate that everyone get access to provide the support that is needed because there are critical humanitarian needs on the ground.”
The government’s response
A top government spokesman denied the HRW allegations within hours of the report’s release on Monday morning.
“The Human Rights Watch report is not acceptable because it’s one-sided,” government spokesman Ye Htut said in a post on his official Facebook page. “The vocabulary used in the report is unacceptable. The government disregards this kind of one-sided report.”
Ye Htut, who is also Burma’s deputy minister of information, added that the government would implement the recommendations of the Arakan Investigation Commission, an official fact-finding team that formed in August and is set to release its own report on Tuesday about the causes of the clashes.
“Human Rights Watch released their report the same day the EU will consider [lifting] sanctions, so the report is questionable,” he added in the Facebook post.
The European Union suspended most of its economic sanctions against Burma one year ago but is expected to go further and “lift all sanctions with the exception of the embargo on arms” in recognition of the country’s political reforms, according to a document seen by Reuters last week.
HRW defended its allegations, calling on the government to allow an international inquiry into the clashes and to bring perpetrators of violence to justice.
“These are allegations that Human Rights Watch does not make lightly,” Matt Smith, an HRW researcher in Burma who helped write the report, told The Irrawaddy. “Crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing are very serious situations, very serious crimes, and we do not take these allegations lightly.”
Citing international law, the report defines crimes against humanity as “crimes committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack by the government or organization on a civilian population.”
The HRW allegations on Monday came shortly after a video surfaced in international media showing Burmese security forces standing back during another wave of anti-Muslim riots in central Burma last month.
The video, which was reportedly filmed by Burmese police officials and published by the BBC, shows police watching as Muslim victims were burned and beaten to death during riots in the central Burma town of Meikhtila Township.
According to government reports, 43 people were killed during three days of clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in the town, while 86 people were injured and 1,355 houses, shops and buildings were destroyed.
Smith said that although HRW had not gathered the extensive research in Meikhtila required to make any allegations of ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity there, the video raised concerns.
“There are serious concerns that what we’re seeing in Arakan State is being replicated in other parts of the country,” he told The Irrawaddy. “It calls into question the government’s commitment to human rights reform.”