BSITTWE, Myanmar// A human rights group said Myanmar government forces opened fire on crowds of ethnic Rohingya in a targeted campaign of violence during recent sectarian strife, as a UN envoy visited the area yesterday to investigate the unrest.
New York-based Human Rights Watch called for a strong international response to "atrocities" committed during fighting in June between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. The violence in western Myanmar that left at least 78 people dead has subsided but tens of thousands remain homeless - mostly Rohingya in need of food, shelter and medical care.
The spokesman for Rakhine state rejected the group's criticism. Win Myaing said allegations that government forces stood and watched as violence wracked the area were "absolutely untrue".
"Security conditions obviously improved day by day when government forces were deployed to control the situation," Mr Win said.
On Monday, foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin said the government "strongly rejects the accusations by some quarters that abuses and excessive use of force were made by the authorities in dealing with the situation".
The release of the report coincided with a visit by UN human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana to Rakhine state. His evaluation of the conflict is likely to be regarded as a yardstick for measuring the reforms undertaken by elected President Thein Sein after Myanmar ended decades of repressive military rule.
Much remains unknown about what transpired in Rakhine during nearly two weeks of sectarian fighting because the area was sealed off. Mr Quintana has made clear that investigating the conflict is a priority of his week-long visit. He toured key sites of the June violence on Tuesday and yesterday declined to reveal any findings. Tensions between the Rakhine and the Rohingya are long-standing, in part because many in Myanmar consider the Rohingya illegal settlers from neighbouring Bangladesh.
"The government claims it is committed to ending ethnic strife and abuse, but recent events in [Rakhine] state demonstrate that state-sponsored persecution and discrimination persist," Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch's Asia director, said. He urged the international community not to be "blinded by a romantic narrative of sweeping change" in the country.
The violence was triggered by reports that a Rakhine Buddhist woman was raped and killed in late May by three Muslim men.
In retaliation, an angry mob of Rakhine villagers attacked a bus on June 3 and killed 10 Muslims, leading to waves of rioting and arson attacks by both groups against the other. Human Rights Watch said government security forces were slow to stop the fighting andcolluded with the Buddhist community as they "unleashed a campaign of violence and mass roundups against the Rohingya".
It said police and paramilitary forces fired at Rohingya on June 12 as they tried to stop Rakhine mobs from burning their homes in the state capital, Sittwe.
"When people tried to put out the fires, the paramilitary shot at us. And the group beat people with big sticks," the report quoted a Rohingya man in Sittwe as saying.
The report was based on 57 interviews with Rakhine, Rohingya and others in both Myanmar and Bangladesh, where Rohingya sought refuge. The report called for the release of hundreds of Rohingya men and boys who were detained in June. It cited a history of torture of Rohingya detainees.
Human Rights Watch also urged opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to do more to protect Rohingya and seek amendment of a 1982 law that limits their rights.
Other human rights groups and some Islamic nations have also called for an outside investigation and protection of Rohingya, saying they continue to face abuses.