New satellite images have revealed the Burmese government is using bulldozers to erase dozens of Rohingya villages — a move that is believed to be part of a systematic effort to destroy evidence of genocide against the country’s ethnic Muslim minority, according to Human Rights Watch.
Since November 2017, the government of Myanmar has flattened at least 55 villages, including the vegetation and buildings, with the help of heavy-duty machinery. The majority of the villages where the demolition is happening were among the 362 villages that were partially or wholly razed in an Aug. 25, 2017, ethnic cleansing campaign.
The satellite photos show the demolition first began in November 2017. It was followed by a brief lull of one month. On Jan. 7, the clearance operations resumed in the southern villages of Rakhine state, where the government announced dislocated refugees would be repatriated and temporarily provided shelter. The Office of the President has also announced construction, focused on improving roads and clearing villages to achieve that.
The State Counselor Office Information Committee said the government had built houses in more than 20 villages across Rakhine State. The Ministry of Social Welfare said the bulldozing of villages is part of developing the villages based on international guidelines set by the United Nations, for the repatriated Rohingya.
However, the demolition is concerning for human rights groups as many of these villages were the sites of alleged crimes against humanity by the Myanmar army and they should be preserved until the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission is given access to the area to start an investigation.
“Many of these villages were scenes of atrocities against Rohingya and should be preserved so that the experts appointed by the U.N. to document these abuses can properly evaluate the evidence to identify those responsible,” said Brad Adams, HRW Asia director. “Bulldozing these areas threatens to erase both the memory and the legal claims of the Rohingya who lived there.”
The bulldozed villages are also a problem for returning refugees who could not recognize the changed landscape as the place they lived.
“Everything is gone, not even the trees are left” said Zubairia, a Rohingya woman who visited her former home in the village of Myin Hlut. “They just bulldozed everything … I could hardly recognize it.”
International law grants refugees, who were unlawfully snatched away from their homes, the right to come back to their homes and have their properties returned. Those who cannot return have the right to demand compensation for their property from the government.
Bulldozing the villages put an end to all that.
Besides, destroying the raided villages is an apparent obstruction of justice, according to the HRW. Myanmar’s government has also failed to investigate the alleged abuses, which tantamount to crimes against humanity, committed by its security forces since late August 2017.
“Deliberately demolishing villages to destroy evidence of grave crimes is obstruction of justice,” Adams said. "Donor governments should ensure they don’t provide any direct or indirect support that would hamper justice or assist those responsible for ethnic cleansing in their efforts to pretend the Rohingya do not have the right to return to their villages in northern Rakhine State.”
The Burmese military denied that violations, including arson, rape and murder, were committed by the security officials. However, in December, following the discovery of a mass grave, in which 10 Rohingya men were buried, after being hacked and shot, the Burmese military admitted they had unlawfully killed the men in “rules of engagement.”
The government arrested 16 people who were involved in the carnage and said it will take legal actions against them.
Myanmar’s government had blocked visas to the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission, which is preventing it from collecting data from affected Rakhine areas. It is also preventing access to independent media outlets, investigators and human rights organization from getting inside the conflict zones.
Banner/Thumbnail credit: REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain