The homes of Rohingya refugees are allegedly being razed to the ground, according to Human Rights Watch, in what is the latest atrocity the Muslim minority group is facing in Burma.
Approximately 354 villages have been "partially or completely destroyed" since August 25, according to HRW. The rights organization's analysts discovered this alleged campaign of destruction by analyzing satellite imagery of Rakhine state, the region in western Burma (also known as Myanmar) where most Rohingyas reside. The analysts also determined some of this destruction occurred after November 23, the day when the Burmese government signed an agreement with Bangladesh to begin allowing some Rohingyas to return home within two months. More than 650,000 are believed to have fled to Bangladesh, creating one of the worst humanitarian crises in years.
"The Burmese army’s destruction of Rohingya villages within days of signing a refugee repatriation agreement with Bangladesh shows that commitments to safe returns were just a public relations stunt," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. "The satellite imagery shows what the Burmese army denies: that Rohingya villages continue to be destroyed. Burmese government pledges to ensure the safety of returning Rohingya cannot be taken seriously."
The Muslim Rohingyas are not considered citizens by the predominantly Buddhist Burmese government. Officially, they are classified as illegal immigrants, despite a history in Rakhine spanning centuries. Tension between the two groups has existed for years, however, the current conflict flared up on August 25 when the Burmese military began engaging in clearing operations in Rohingya villages. Rights groups have claimed the Burmese military has engaged in mass rape, killings and arson in these operations.
Burmese officials have defended their actions, claiming they are clearing terrorists belonging to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) out of the area. Arsa has engaged in some attacks against the military and police. The August 25 attacks which led to the clearing operations killed 12 people, according to the Burmese government. The Burmese military engaged in an investigation to determine if its forces were guilty of the allegations, concluding there were "no deaths of innocent people." Humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) estimated at least 6,700 Rohingyas have been killed in the conflict, including 700 children.
Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate, has defended the military's actions, leading to criticism from some Westerners.
"The UN Security Council and concerned governments shouldn’t continue to stand by as evidence of continuing attacks on the Rohingya community comes to light," said Adams. "Targeted sanctions need to be imposed now against those responsible for ordering and carrying out crimes against humanity."
Bipartisan sanctions legislation against Burmese officials is pending in the U.S. Congress, but it does not appear to be moving forward any time soon.