BANGKOK - A leading international rights group on Monday accused authorities in Myanmar, including Buddhist monks, of fomenting an organized campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country's Rohingya Muslim minority that killed hundreds of people and forced 125,000 from their homes.
Human Rights Watch also described the bloody wave of violence and massacres in western Rakhine state last year as crimes against humanity, and slammed the government of President Thein Sein for failing to bring the perpetrators to justice months after mobs of Buddhists armed with machetes and homemade guns razed thousands of Muslim homes.
While state security forces sometimes intervened to protect fleeing Muslims, more often they fueled the unrest, the rights group said, either by standing by idle or directly participating in atrocities. One soldier reportedly told a Muslim man whose village was ablaze: "The only thing you can do is pray to save your lives."
The allegations, detailed in a new report by the New York-based rights group, came the same day the European Union was expected to lift all sanctions on Myanmar except an arms embargo to reward the Southeast Asian nation for its progress toward democratic rule.
Win Myaing, a government spokesman for Rakhine state, strongly rejected the allegations against state security forces, saying Human Rights Watch investigators "don't understand the situation on the ground."
He said there the government had no prior knowledge of impending attacks and deployed forces to stop the unrest.
"We don't want unrest in the country because such incidents stall the democratic process and affect development," he said.
The spread of sectarian violence has posed one of the greatest challenges yet to Thein Sein's nascent government as it takes unprecedented steps to liberalize the country after almost half a century of military dictatorship. Rakhine state was shaken twice by anti-Muslim violence — first in June, then again in October. In March, unrest spread for the first time to central Myanmar, where dozens of people were killed in the city of Meikhtila.
In western Myanmar, the crisis goes back decades and is rooted in a highly controversial dispute over where the region's Muslim inhabitants are really from. Although many Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are widely denigrated by majority Buddhists as foreign intruders who came from neighbouring Bangladesh to steal scarce land.
The U.N. estimates their number at 800,000. The government does not count them as one of the country's 135 ethnic groups, and — like Bangladesh — denies them citizenship.
Human rights groups say racism also plays a role: Many Rohingya, who speak a distinct Bengali dialect and resemble Muslim Bangladeshis, have darker skin and are heavily discriminated against.
While the June violence was apparently triggered spontaneously by the rape and murder of a 28-year-old Buddhist woman by three Muslim men the previous month, the violence in October "was clearly much more organized and planned," Human Rights Watch said.
The report detailed how officials from the powerful Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, as well as Buddhist monks, publically vilified the Rohingya after the June riots. They encouraged segregation, the boycott of Muslim businesses, and described the Rohingya living among them as a threat to the state.
"These groups and others issued numerous anti-Rohingya pamphlets and public statements, explicitly or implicitly denying the existence of the Rohingya ethnicity, demonizing them, and calling for their removal from the country, at times using the phrase 'ethnic cleansing,'" Human Rights Watch said. "The statements frequently were released in connection with organized meetings and in full view of local, state, and national authorities who raised no concerns."
Then, starting Oct. 23, ethnic Rakhine mobs attacked Muslim communities in nine townships over the course of a single week, forcing tens of thousands to flee. The deadliest attack occurred that day in the village of Yan Thei, where Buddhist mobs armed with machetes killed 70 Rohingya, including 28 children.
"Despite advance warning of the attack, only a small number of riot police, local police, and army soldiers were on duty to provide security, but they assisted the killings by disarming the Rohingya of their sticks and other rudimentary weapons they carried to defend themselves," the report said.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights watch, said Myanmar's "government engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement."
"The government needs to put an immediate stop to the abuses and hold the perpetrators accountable or it will be responsible for further violence," he said.