Burmese security forces sided with ethnic Rakhines and committed killings and rape on Rohingyas during recent communal violence in western Burma, an international rights watchdog said Wednesday, as a UN rights expert visited the site of the clashes.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said state security forces worked in concert with the Rakhine Buddhists in acts of targeted violence against the Muslim Rohingya after long-simmering tensions between the two ethnic minority groups erupted in early June.
“There was collusion between the security forces and the ethnic Arakan [Rakhine], of which the Rohingyas were the victims,” Elaine Pearson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said in a video released with the report.
Witnesses in Sittwe and northern Rakhine state told HRW they saw security forces opening fire on Rohingya villagers fleeing their homes and groups of armed Rakhines traveling together with police, the report said.
Although army units deployed by the government played a positive role in stemming the initial mob riots, army and local forces including police, border guards, and paramilitary units were responsible for killings and “numerous abuses” against the Rohingya, HRW said.
“Burmese security forces … unleashed a campaign of violence and mass roundups against the Rohingya,” HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams said.
“The government claims it is committed to ending ethnic strife and abuse, but recent events in Arakan [Rakhine] State demonstrate that state-sponsored persecution and discrimination persist,” he said.
The crisis in Rakhine state was triggered on May 28, when an ethnic Rakhine woman was raped and murdered, followed by the killing of 10 Muslims by an unidentified mob on June 3. Official figures showed more than 70,000 people were displaced in the ensuing violence and that at least 78 died, but unofficial estimates have been higher.
Failure to protect
The HRW report, titled “The Government Could Have Stopped This” and based on 57 interviews, said security forces had failed to take adequate measures to stem the rising tensions, doing little to protect either the Rohingya or the Rakhines.
“Burmese security forces failed to protect the Arakan [Rakhine] and Rohingya from each other,” Adams said.
Both Rakhine and Rohingya witnesses told HRW that government forces stood by while members of each community attacked the other, razing villages and committing an unknown number of killings, HRW said.
The report came as Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N.’s special envoy to Burma, visited Rakhine state to investigate the violence.
Quintana visited Sittwe and Maungdaw township in northern Rakhine state on Tuesday and Wednesday during his weeklong visit to Burma at the government’s invitation, but declined to answer journalists' questions about what he found.
His trip followed concerns expressed by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay over reports indicating that the initial government response to the June violence may have turned into a crackdown targeting Muslims, particularly the Rohingya.
Burma does not recognize the Rohingya as one of its ethnic groups, considering them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh even though they have lived in the Southeast Asian country for generations.
The U.N. says about 800,000 Rohingyas live in Burma and they are one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
Five U.N. workers, along with another five from other aid agencies, have been detained by Burmese authorities in connection with the unrest.
The aid workers have been accused of taking part in the violence and "setting fire to villages," according to Border Affairs Minister Lt. Gen. Thein Htay.
HRW’s report accused the Burmese government of restricting access to affected areas, particularly Rohingya areas.
“United Nations and humanitarian aid workers have faced arrest as well as threats and intimidation from the local Arakan population, which perceives the aid agencies as biased toward the Rohingya,” it said.
Burma has rejected previous accusations of abuse by security forces.
On Monday, Burma’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin said the security forces had exercised "maximum restraint" in bringing an end to the violence.
“Myanmar [Burma] strongly rejects the accusations made by some quarters that abuses and excessive use of force were made by the authorities in dealing with the situation," he said, speaking at a press conference attended by Quintana.
Earlier this month, President Thein Sein proposed that the U.N. refugee agency place Rohingya in refugee camps or send them out of the country. His request was immediately refused by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Quintana is expected to meet with Thein Sein on Friday.
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.