A Myanmar government-appointed investigation commission wrapped a five-day visit to the northern part of Rakhine state on Tuesday in which the members stopped in 10 villages in Maungdaw township where violence had occurred last month.
Led by Vice President Myint Swe, the 13-member group was formed by President Htin Kyaw on Dec. 1 to examine the situation that led to deadly border guard station attacks on Oct. 9 and subsequent violence on Nov. 12-13 in Maungdaw.
The commission is also tasked with verifying allegations by Rohingya Muslims who have accused national army soldiers of arson, torture, rape, and murder during the security operations.
Commission members Aung Kyi and Thet Zin met Muslim women and children in Kyet-yo-byin village and asked about any rapes and child murders that may have occurred there, as reported in Britain’s The Guardian.
The villagers said they had only heard rumors about such crimes and did not know any further details.
The commission members also met with detainees arrested in connection with the Maungdaw violence who are being held in prisons in neighboring Buthidaung township and in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe.
“We met with detainees in Buthidaung prison who were arrested during the violence, as well as those in Sittwe prison during our visit, and asked them how the incidents started,” commission member Saw Thalay said.
Authorities have detained about 600 people in connection with the violence during a security sweep of Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships when army soldiers and border police searched for those involved in a deadly border guard attack on Oct. 9.
Security forces, who blamed the attack on Rohingya Muslim militants, locked down Rohingya communities where residents who were forced to flee have accused them of arson, rape and murder.
1,500 structures burned
As the commission’s visit ended, New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the Myanmar army burned at least 1,500 structures in Rohingya Muslim villages during their security sweep of the area.
Satellite imagery of the villages and interviews with refugees “place responsibility for burnings of Rohingya villages…squarely with the Burmese military,” which have driven thousands from their homes, HRW said in a statement.
The Myanmar government has yet to respond to the latest HRW report, but has been dismissive of early statements by the group, and the army has not permitted independent observers or media to visit the conflict zone.
The military and the Myanmar government have denied that national army soldiers burned homes or committed extrajudicial killings, torture, and rape during their lockdown of Maungdaw township as they searched for those involved in the Oct. 9 attacks. Instead, soldiers blamed the Rohingya for setting their own homes on fire.
Nearly 90 people have been confirmed killed, and more than 30,000 displaced, including over 20,000 Rohingya who fled their homes to neighboring, Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
“The new findings refute the Burmese military and government’s claims that Rohingya militants were responsible for burning down their own villages,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director. “The satellite imagery and eyewitness interviews clearly point the finger at the military for setting these buildings ablaze.”
The new satellite imagery analysis of villages in Maungdaw township reveals four new elements, HRW said, with the number of destroyed buildings rising to 1,500 as of Nov. 23 and the pattern of arson suggesting government responsibility as military forces moved westward.
The group also pointed out that its documentation of building destruction in villages on three occasions after government forces reportedly came under attack there suggested multiple arson in the same place, and that imagery indicated the presence of security forces in a border guard post next to Wa Peik village, which was almost entirely burned down in three waves over a month.
“It’s difficult to believe that militants burned down over 300 buildings in Wa Peik over a one-month period while Burmese security forces stood there and watched,” Adams said. “Burmese government officials have been caught out by this satellite imagery, and it’s time they recognize their continued denials lack credibility.”
Previous satellite images
On Oct. 31, HRW first issued satellite imagery recorded on Oct. 22 that presented evidence of fire-related destruction in at least three Maungdaw villages. It also reviewed thermal anomaly data collected by an environmental satellite sensor that detected the presence of multiple burning fires in two of the same villages on Oct. 14.
Two weeks later, the group issued fresh high-definition satellite imagery showing widespread fire-related destruction in ethnic Rohingya villages that was even greater than it had first thought.
HRW said it had identified 430 destroyed buildings, large burn scars, and destroyed tree cover in three villages of northern Maungdaw township.
High resolution satellite imagery recorded on the mornings of Oct. 22, Nov. 3, and Nov. 10 showed 85 buildings were destroyed in the village of Pyaung Pyit, 245 in Kyet Yoe Pyin, and 100 in Wa Peik, it said.
Though the Myanmar government has not yet issued a response to HRW’s most recent statement, it held a press conference on Nov. 16, refuting HRW’s findings, and saying only that 155 buildings had been burned by militants.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Muang Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.