BANGKOK // A leading international rights group yesterday accused authorities in Myanmar, including Buddhist monks, of fomenting an organised 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 (HRW) also described the wave of violence and massacres in west Rakhine state last year as crimes against humanity, and slammed the government of 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 fuelled 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 country for its progress towards democratic rule.
Win Myaing, a government spokesman for Rakhine state, rejected the allegations against state security forces, saying HRW investigators "don't understand the situation on the ground". He said 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.
An official with a leading political party in Rakhine went so far as to deny the existence of Rohingyas in the country.
"We don't have Rohingyas in our country. We can only say that they are Bangladeshi or foreign Bengalis, said Dr U Maung, vice-chairman of the Arakan League for Democracy. "Now, the words used by this group have reached the level of hurting the country and its people. [Human Rights Watch] often kept saying ethnic cleaning. Actually, it's not a racial or religious issue."
The spread of sectarian violence has posed one of the greatest challenges yet to Mr Thein Sein's nascent government as it takes unprecedented steps to liberalise 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.
Also on Monday, the BBC broadcast video footage showing police in Meikhtila standing by as looting, arson and multiple attacks against Muslims were underway.
One scene showed a charred man, thought to be Muslim, lying prostrate on the ground, badly burnt but apparently still alive. As one person said, "Let him die, no water for him", several police walked past.
In west Myanmar the crisis goes back decades and is rooted in a 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 UN 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 June violence in Junewas 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 organised and planned", HRW said.
The report detailed how officials from the powerful Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, as well as Buddhist monks, publicly 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, demonising them, and calling for their removal from the country, at times using the phrase 'ethnic cleansing,'" HRW said.
Starting on October 23, ethnic Rakhine mobs attacked Muslim communities in nine townships over the course of a single week, forcing tens of thousands to flee. The worst attack occurred that day in the village of Yan Thei, where Buddhist mobs armed with machetes killed 70 Rohingya, including 28 children.