An international human rights group Thursday urged Burma’s government to end arbitrary detention and hold accountable security forces implicated in serious abuses amidst ongoing sectarian violence in the country's western Rakhine state.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement that Burmese security forces have responded with mass arrests and “unlawful force” against the Muslim Rohingya population, which has been clashing with Buddhist Rakhines in the state since early June.
“The Burmese government needs to put an immediate end to the abusive sweeps by the security forces against Rohingya communities,” Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at HRW, said in the statement.
“Anyone being held should be promptly charged or released, and their relatives given access.”
HRW said that Burmese authorities must also ensure safe access to the area by the United Nations, independent humanitarian organizations, and the media.
The group said that Burmese security forces have been implicated in killings and other abuses since the violence began and cited one occurrence on June 23 in which they pursued and fired on two dozen Rohingya villagers hiding from violence in the town of Maungdaw.
HRW was unable to provide figures on the total killed or wounded in the incident, but a survivor the group interviewed said that out of a group of eight young men who fled, only two escaped unharmed.
Rakhines, an ethnic minority in Burma, form a majority in Rakhine state, which is also home to some 800,000 Rohingyas. The Rohingyas are considered outsiders by many Burmese even though they have lived in the country for generations, and the UN has called them a stateless people and one of the most persecuted groups in the world.
Violence in Rakhine state began after an ethnic Rakhine woman was allegedly raped and killed by three Muslim men in late May. On June 3, a group of Buddhist vigilantes attacked and killed 10 Muslims on a bus they believed were responsible for the woman’s death.
On June 8, thousands of Rohingyas rioted in Maungdaw, destroying Rakhine property, burning homes, and causing an unknown number of deaths. In the aftermath, Rohingyas carried out similar attacks on Rakhines elsewhere around the state.
Rakhine groups have retaliated, in some cases with the collusion of local authorities and police, HRW said, committing violence against Rohingyas, including beatings and killings, and burning down Muslim homes and villages.
On June 10, President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in Rakhine state, essentially granting the armed forces the ability to arrest and detain people without due process. And while the military has largely contained the violence, HRW said abuses by the security forces against the Rohingyas appear to have increased in recent weeks.
“Local police and the Nasaka [border security force], claiming to be searching for Rohingya criminal suspects involved in the sectarian strife, have conducted mass round-ups of Rohingya,” HRW said.
“The mass arrests ongoing in northern [Rakhine state] seem to be discriminatory, as the authorities in these townships do not appear to be investigating or apprehending [Rakhine] suspected of criminal offenses.”
HRW said the total number of people arrested, their names, and any charges against them have not been reported.
Security force abuses
The group cited witnesses who said that security forces raided Rohingya villages in Maungdaw township, firing on villagers and looting homes and businesses.
The witnesses said that police and Nasaka dragged people from their homes and violently beat them, while in villages outside of Maungdaw dozens of people, including women and children, were taken away in mid-June by Nasaka trucks and have not been heard from since.
Some 80 people have died, by official count, and thousands of Rakhine and Rohingya homes have been destroyed in the violence, which has left an estimated 90,000 people displaced and taking refuge in temporary camps.
Hundreds of Rohingyas have fled across the border to Bangladesh, though many have been forced back to Burma.
“The violence in [Rakhine state] has devastated both the Rohingya and [Rakhine] communities, but government efforts to identify and arrest those responsible should not result in further abuses,” Pearson said.
“The sectarian violence and state of emergency provides no excuse for the security forces to continue their past record of abuses and discrimination against the Rohingya community.”
HRW called on the Burmese government to allow international access to all of Rakhine state and to invite the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomas Quintana, to conduct an investigation into the violence and alleged abuses by security forces in the area.
The group said the independence and objectivity of the government committee tasked last month with investigating the causes of violence in Rakhine is questionable because it includes local security forces and Rakhine state officials.
It also called on Burmese authorities to immediately disclose the location of all detention centers, provide the names of all detainees, bring them to trial, and allow independent humanitarian agencies access to all facilities.
“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.”
The call by HRW came as the head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, urged Burmese pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi Thursday to help end violence against the Rohingya community in in Rakhine state.
"As a Nobel Peace Laureate, we are confident that the first step of your journey towards ensuring peace in the world would start from your own doorstep," Ihsanoglu wrote in a letter on behalf of the 57-member Muslim body.
Ihsanoglu urged the recently elected member of parliament to convince the government to accept “an international inquiry into the recent violence, granting free access to humanitarian aid groups and international media” in Rakhine state.
It also came amidst a report by Agence France-Presse on Wednesday of a leadership reshuffle that would see three hardline senior ministers in Burma’s government make way for more moderate figures, and the resignation of Burmese Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo, citing health reasons.
A new parliament session, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s newly elected National League for Democracy lawmakers, began in the Burmese capital Naypyidaw on Wednesday. At the top of this session’s agenda is the sectarian violence in Rakhine state.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.