By Hanna Hindstrom
Burmese security forces have systematically abused the stateless Rohingya group after sectarian violence flared in northern Arakan state in early June, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on Thursday.
Local police, military and the area’s paramilitary forces, known as the NaSaKa, have responded to the unrest with “biased” and “brutal force” against the Muslim minority group, according to the leading human rights watchdog.
Authorities have been implicated in mass arrests of Rohingya men, as well as direct complicity in killings and other abuses, such as razing and pillaging Rohingya townships.
“The Burmese government needs to put an immediate end to the abusive sweeps by the security forces against Rohingya communities,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Anyone being held should be promptly charged or released, and their relatives given access.”
HRW cited one incident on 23 June, when security forces opened fire on dozens of villagers near Maungdaw who had been hiding from the violence in a nearby forest.
“Everybody was so scared,” a survivor told HRW. “We saw them entering and we left, trying to get out of the village. There was a canal, but some people could not cross it and the army shot at them and killed them.”
Communal riots flared last month after the rape and murder of an ethnic Arakanese girl, allegedly by three Rohingya Muslims, prompted a revenge attack on ten Muslim pilgrims in the state’s Taungup township. President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency on 10 June, officially authorising the armed forces to arrest and detain individuals without due process.
While early reports have been difficult to verify, a growing number of eyewitness accounts suggest state complicity in the violence.
A recent report by the Equal Rights Trust (ERT) based on interviews with fifty refugees highlighted “serious questions of crimes against humanity” committed in Arakan state. It also accused the government of denying humanitarian assistance to many of the 90,000 people that have been displaced by the conflict.
Thousands of refugees fleeing the unrest have been turned away by the Bangladeshi authorities, which insist they do not have the capacity to accept them.
“Death by NaSaKa is waiting for us if we are pushed back to Burma,” one refugee told ERT. “NaSaKa will kill us just like a street dog. We prefer to die here, we will get the proper funeral that a Muslim should get.”
Last week, President Thein Sein delayed a state visit to Bangladesh, during which he was set to discuss the escalating crisis. He has come under growing pressure by both human rights groups and anti-Rohingya nationalists to clarify his position on the minority group.
Other senior Burmese political figures have responded to the violence by calling for further ostracism of the Rohingyas, which are denied citizenship and basics rights in Burma.
Immigration Minister Khin Yi renewed calls for a King Dragon operation – a notorious 1978 military crackdown on the minority group, which forced up to 250,000 refugees to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh.
“We are verifying whether the riots were instigated from outside of the country,” he said. “We are going to recheck all the relief camps. There was large-scale national verification programme in 1998 [Sic] named the King Dragon Operation – now we are looking to carry out something like it again.”
Meanwhile, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) released a statement last week effectively calling for apartheid against the Rohingya in northern Arakan state.
Even democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has framed the controversy surrounding Rohingya citizenship as an “immigration issue”, leading observers to speculate over her attitude towards the group. While in Ireland last month to receive an award from Amnesty International, the opposition leader was asked if the Rohingya should be considered Burmese and she replied “I don’t know”.
“The present crisis is only the eruption of a long unaddressed problem with several dimensions,” said ERT. “While immediate solutions are essential to protect those at risk of severe harm in the present crisis, concrete and sustained efforts are needed to ensure full respect for all Rohingya both within Myanmar [Burma] and beyond.”
HRW has called for UN observers to be given access to the conflict-torn region and for governments to apply pressure on the Burmese regime to respect human rights.
“The Burmese government should demonstrate that the political changes taking place in the country extend to the ethnic areas, and that abuses by local authorities will not be tolerated,” Pearson said. “This means stopping the violations, holding abusive officials to account, and promptly permitting an independent investigation.”