An international rights group has charged that the Myanmar army is building bases on the site of torched villages once occupied by Rohingya Muslims who fled northern Rakhine state last year during a brutal crackdown by security forces, a claim rebutted by a Myanmar lawmaker.
London-based Amnesty International said in a report issued on Monday that the region is being “militarized at an alarming pace,” with authorities constructing security force bases and bulldozing land where Rohingya communities were burned out months ago, along with vegetation and trees.
The rights group cites eyewitness testimony and analysis of satellite images as proof of the leveling of the remains of Rohingya villages. The images show that new structures and roads have appeared since January in areas where hundreds of thousands fled the military’s scorched-earth campaign.
The military crackdown in response to deadly attacks on police outposts by a militant Muslim group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, in August targeted Rohingya civilians in a campaign of killing, rape, and arson that drove nearly 700,000 members of the despised minority group across the border to Bangladesh.
Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to repatriate those who wish to return to northern Rakhine, but Amnesty International said the new structures being built on their razed land will make it even less likely that refugees, already fearful and reluctant, will want to return to their homes.
“What we are seeing in Rakhine state is a land grab by the military on a dramatic scale,” Tirana Hassan, the group’s crisis response director, said in a statement. “New bases are being erected to house the very same security forces that have committed crimes against humanity against Rohingya.”
“This makes the voluntary, safe and dignified return of Rohingya refugees an even more distant prospect,” she said. “Not only are their homes gone, but the new construction is entrenching the already dehumanizing discrimination they have faced in Myanmar.”
Amnesty International also said that the building activity raises serious concerns that authorities are destroying evidence of crimes against the Rohingya, making it impossible to conduct investigations and hold accountable those who perpetrated the atrocities.
Even more troubling than the destruction is what is being built in its place, said the report. Authorities have launched an operation to rapidly expand security infrastructure across Rakhine state, including bases to house the military and border guard police and helipads.
Satellite images show the construction of at least three new security bases being built in northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw township and one in Ah Lel Chaung village in Buthidaung township, where eyewitnesses told Amnesty International that soldiers evicted Rohingya to make way for the construction, forcing them to flee to Bangladesh.
‘It is not true’
Myanmar lawmaker Hla Tun Kyaw, who represents Maungdaw township, rebutted the report, saying that when he was last in his constituency in February, he did not see any of the clearing and construction that Amnesty International mentions in its report.
“When I call people in Maungdaw and talk with them these days, they don’t say anything about it either,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “But before I left for parliament, I saw authorities working in two villages that had been burned down in south Maungdaw.”
Hla Tun Kyaw, who spends most of his time at the national parliament in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, said he speaks with authorities in Maungdaw two or three times a week, and they have denied reports about the construction activities.
“[S]ome people have posted [online] that the military is building army bases, helipads, and roads in villages that have been burned and bulldozed,” he said. “Because of those posts, I called authorities in Maungdaw and asked about it, and they said it is not true.”
The lawmaker, whose denials echoed Myanmar’s stock official response to all questions about the conflict, did not address the satellite images.
Myanmar has built two repatriation centers at Taungpyo Letwe and Nga Khu Ya and a transit camp at Hla Pho Khaung to handle returning Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh once the repatriation program gets under way.
Repatriations were scheduled to begin during the fourth week of January, but have yet to start on account of various delays for which officials from each side have blamed the other.
Amnesty International's report comes as Yanghee Lee, the United Nations’ independent investigator on human rights in Myanmar, told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday that the Myanmar government appears to be using a policy of starvation in Rakhine state to force out remaining Muslims, Reuters reported.
She called on the Council to create a body in Bangladesh to collect evidence for potential trials of those who perpetrated abuse against the Rohingya, the report said.
Htin Lynn, Myanmar’s permanent representative to the U.N. in Geneva, rejected Lee’s remarks, called on the Council to fire her, and said that Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is committed to human rights, the news agency reported.
In a report to the Council on Friday, Lee said she believes that events in northern Rakhine “bear the hallmarks of genocide” based on interviews she had with Rohingya living in displacement camps in Bangladesh.
The Myanmar government has temporarily barred Lee from visiting the country on her periodic missions to evaluate rights developments, particularly in violence-wracked Rakhine state.
Housing for ethnic returnees
In related news, nearly 300 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and ethnic Mro people originally from Myanmar recently left their farms in Bangladesh and returned to Maungdaw township, local administrators said Monday.
The two groups, who began returning to Rakhine on March 6, had been living in southeastern Bangladesh’s Chittagong region for generations from the time when the territory was part of the old Rakhine kingdom.
“They have been living in Bangladesh for a long time as [ethnic] minorities,” said lawmaker Hla Tun Kyaw. “They worked on farms, and their farms were destroyed by locals. When they reported the destruction to the authorities, they didn’t take any action.”
“I have heard that local majority people threatened them and didn’t let them buy their products,” he said. “They returned because they were facing difficulties trying to survive there.”
Immigration officials have tallied 290 returnees so far and ordered village heads to help them resettle.
The ethnic Rakhine are staying temporarily in a school in Aung Thapyay village, while the Mro have been placed in Thu Pannaka Mro and Thitton Ngakwasone villages, Hla Tun Kyaw said.
Thein Shwe Oo, administrator of Aung Thapyay village, said the returnees have asked village administrators to allow them to live in Maungdaw.
“They worked on farms in Bangladesh, and they were experiencing difficulties trying to survive,” he told RFA.
So far, civil society organizations and local communities have provided the returnees with enough food for a month, Hla Tun Kyaw said.
India to build homes
In a related development, Indian diplomats met with Myanmar officials in Naypyidaw on Monday to discuss the building of 250 prefabricated houses for displaced residents in Maungdaw’s Kyeinchaung Taung, Nant Tha Taung, and Shwezar villages.
Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister of social welfare minister, and Vikram Misri, India’s ambassador to Myanmar, agreed on the construction plan during a meeting in Naypyidaw in February.
On March 10, B. Shyam, deputy chief of mission at the Indian embassy in Myanmar, a first secretary who was identified as Muthukumarasamy B., and other officials visited Nant Tha Taung village and inspected the chosen site where the donated homes will be built, according to a Facebook post by Myanmar International TV.
The Indian diplomats later met with officials of the General Administration Department in Taungpyo Letwe, the post said.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.