BANGKOK (AlertNet) – Human Rights Watch has released new satellite imagery showing widespread destruction of homes and property in areas of Myanmar largely inhabited by the stateless Muslim Rohingya where unrest in October killed at least 89 people and displaced more than 36,000.
As U.S. President Barack Obama embarked on his historic visit to predominantly Buddhist Myanmar on Monday – the first by a serving American president – satellite images of Pauktaw, Mrauk-U and Myebon townships in western Rakhine state released on Sunday show empty, bare plots and burnt forest cover in previously populated neighbourhoods.
Shots of Yan Thei, a village in Mrauk-U, show near total destruction, similar to images released in October of the Rohingya area in the coastal town of Kyaukphyu.
Longstanding tensions between the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, turned violent in early June and in October, killing at least 160 people and displacing more than 110,000 – mostly Muslims.
Rights groups say the Rohingya face some of the worst discrimination in the world. The Rakhines and other Burmese view them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh who deserve neither rights nor sympathy.
HRW said in a statement the most recent devastation was a result of arson and attacks by local Buddhist Rakhine mobs with the support of state security forces and local government officials.
A Reuters investigation paints a similar picture, finding the wave of attacks was organised and led by Rakhine nationalists tied to a powerful political party in the state, incited by Buddhist monks and, some witnesses said, abetted at times by local security forces.
New York-based HRW said the images show the destruction of around 348 acres of largely residential areas inhabited by Rohingyas and Kaman Muslims, the latter recognised as citizens in Myanmar.
“The images, which were captured on November 3 and 8, are not exhaustive and reflect damages in only five of the 13 townships that have experienced violence in Arakan State since June,” it added.
CONCESSIONS FOR “HISTORIC VISIT”
The displaced Rohingya populations from these sites are in dire need of shelter, food, water, sanitation, and medical care, but few are receiving sustained assistance, said HRW.
Meanwhile, the safety and security of humanitarian workers remains a concern. Two weeks ago, Medecins Sans Frontieres told AlertNet it was unable to provide healthcare to the displaced due to threats against its staff by hardline Rakhine nationalists.
Myanmar’s reformist government, which took over in March 2011 after half a century of iron-fisted military rule, made several concessions on numerous issues including the Rakhine riots – which the International Crisis Group said could threaten the impoverished country’s stability – ahead of Obama’s visit on Monday.
On Saturday, Myanmar's president blamed nationalist and religious extremists for the violence and the United Nations said the country’s leader had promised to address the underlying problems.
The government said on Sunday it would grant the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) further access to Myanmar’s prisons “to assess the welfare and living conditions of the prisoners and to facilitate medical treatment” and would extend an invitation to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish an office in the country.
It released dozens of political prisoners on Monday, including Myint Aye, arguably the most prominent dissident left in Myanmar's gulag who was arrested on what Amnesty International says were trumped-up charges and convicted in secret courts on flimsy evidence or confessions extracted under torture.
The United States has suspended sanctions on Myanmar and removed an import ban in recognition of Myanmar president's political and economic reforms, but it still wants him to end ethnic conflict and release all political prisoners.
“President Obama should make clear to the Burmese president that the attacks on the Rohingya need to stop if the Burma government wants to avoid renewed sanctions and the suspension of renewed military-to-military dialogues with the United States,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, referring to the country by its former name.