Smoke rises from a burned house in Gawdu Zara village, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar on Sept 7, 2017. Journalists saw new fires burning Thursday in the Myanmar village that had been abandoned by Rohingya Muslims, and where pages from Islamic texts were seen ripped and left on the ground. (AP Photo)
GENEVA: The top UN human rights official on Monday denounced Myanmar‘s “brutal security operation” against Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine state, saying it was disproportionate to insurgent attacks carried out last month.
Communal tensions appeared to be rising across Myanmar on Monday after two weeks of violence in Rakhine state that have triggered an exodus of about 300,000 Rohingya Muslims, prompting the government to tighten security at Buddhist pagodas.
Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein, addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council, said that more than 270,000 people had fled to Bangladesh, with more trapped on the border, amid reports of the burning of villages and extrajudicial killings.
Rohingya have been stripped of civil and political rights including citizenship rights for decades, he added.
“We have received multiple reports and satellite imagery of security forces and local militia burning Rohingya villages, and consistent accounts of extrajudicial killings, including shooting fleeing civilians,” he said.
“Because Myanmar has refused access to human rights investigators, the current situation cannot yet be fully assessed, but the situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Mr Zeid said he was “appalled” by reports that the Myanmar authorities have now begun to lay landmines along the border with Bangladesh, and that refugees who have fled the violence will only be allowed back if they can provide “proof of nationality.”
“Given that successive Myanmar governments have since 1962 progressively stripped the Rohingya population of their political and civil rights, including citizenship rights…this measure resembles a cynical ploy to forcibly transfer large numbers of people without possibility of return,” he said.
Rohingya Muslims represent the largest percentage of Muslims in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, with the majority living in Rakhine. They self-identify as a distinct ethnic group with their own language and culture, and many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
But the government does not recognize them as one of the country‘s many ethnic groups, considering them instead to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and they are often portrayed by ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups as a “threat to race and religion.”
Against this backdrop, communal tensions have occasionally erupted into violence.
Many Rohingya live in extreme poverty and in fear of arbitrary arrest and detention, while they are denied freedom of movement and have limited access to education and healthcare.
Last year Mr Zeid‘s office issued a report, based on interviews with Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh after a previous military assault, which he said on Monday had “suggested a widespread or systematic attack against the community, possibly amounting to crimes against humanity”.
In his address Monday, he also urged the Myanmar government to “stop claiming that the Rohingyas are setting fire to their own homes and laying waste to their own villages.”
“This complete denial of reality is doing great damage to the international standing of a government which, until recently, benefited from immense good will,” he said.
“I deplore current measures in India to deport Rohingyas at a time of such violence against them in their country,” Mr Zeid said, noting that some 40,000 Rohingyas had settled in India, including 16,000 who have received refugee documentation.
Noting India‘s obligations under international law, he said: “India cannot carry out collective expulsions, or return people to a place where they risk torture or other serious violations.”
In this News video, a reporter finds evidence that contradicts the government‘s claim that Rohingya are burning down their own villages.