GENEVA – Myanmar security forces have brutally driven out half a million Rohingya from northern Rakhine state, torching their homes, crops and villages to prevent them from returning, the United Nations human rights office said on Wednesday.
In a report based on 65 interviews with Rohingya who have arrived in Bangladesh in the past month, it said that “clearance operations” had begun before insurgent attacks on police posts on Aug. 25 and included killings, torture and rape of children.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein – who has described the government operations as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” – said in a statement that the actions appeared to be “a cynical ploy to forcibly transfer large numbers of people without possibility of return”.
“Credible information indicates that the Myanmar security forces purposely destroyed the property of the Rohingyas, scorched their dwellings and entire villages in northern Rakhine State, not only to drive the population out in droves but also to prevent the fleeing Rohingya victims from returning to their homes,” the latest report by his Geneva office said.
The destruction by security forces, often joined by “mobs” of armed Rakhine Buddhists, of houses, fields, food stocks, crops, and livestock make the possibility of Rohingya returning to normal lives in northern Rakhine “almost impossible”.
Myanmar security forces are believed to have planted landmines along the border in an attempt to prevent Rohingya from returning, it said, adding: “There are indications that violence is still ongoing”.
Myanmar on Tuesday launched its first bid to improve relations between Buddhists and Muslims since the eruption of deadly violence inflamed communal tension and triggered an exodus of some 520,000 Muslims to Bangladesh. It held inter-faith prayers at a stadium in Yangon.
A team of U.N. human rights officials, who went to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, from Sept 14-24, met victims and eyewitnesses and corroborated their accounts.
They documented Myanmar security forces “firing indiscriminately at Rohingya villagers, injuring and killing other innocent victims, setting houses on fire”, the report said.
“Almost all testimonies indicated that people were shot at close range and in the back while they tried to flee in panic,” it said. “Witness accounts attest to Rohingya victims, including children and elderly people, burned to death inside their houses.
Several interviewees indicated that a “launcher”, most probably a rocket propelled grenade launcher, was used to set houses on fire, the report added.
Girls just five to seven years old had been raped, often in front of relatives, and sometimes by several men “all dressed in army uniforms”, it said.
The social welfare, relief and resettlement minister has been quoted as saying that “according to the law, burned land becomes government-managed land,” it said, noting the government has previously used this law to prevent the return of displaced.
Rohingya men under 40 were arrested up to a month before Aug. 25 without charge, creating a “climate of intimidation and fear”.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay