Government forces stood by and watched as sectarian violence erupted last month in western Burma and then opened fire on Muslim Rohingyas as they tried to save their burning homes, Human Rights Watch said today.
In a 56-page report, the New York-based rights group called for strong international reaction to “atrocities” committed during last month’s bloody unrest between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas.
The fighting that left at least 78 people dead has subsided but tens of thousands remain homeless – mostly Rohingyas in need of food, shelter and medical care.
“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,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director.
He urged the international community not to be “blinded by a romantic narrative of sweeping change” in the country.
The report was released as a UN human rights envoy visited Rakhine state to investigate the conflict that constituted some of Burma’s worst sectarian bloodshed in years and raised international concerns about the Rohingyas’ fate in Burma.
Tomas Ojea Quintana’s evaluation is likely to be regarded as a yardstick for measuring the reforms undertaken by elected president Thein Sein after Burma ended decades of repressive military rule.
Mr Quintana has made it clear that investigating the conflict is a priority of his week-long visit. He arrived yesterday in Rakhine state for a two-day tour, visiting key sites of the June violence.
Tensions between the Rakhines and the Rohingyas are long-standing, in part because many in Burma consider the Rohingyas to be illegal settlers from neighbouring Bangladesh.
The trigger for the latest round of violence came after reports circulated 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 angry rioting and arson attacks by both communities against the other.
Human Rights Watch said government security forces were slow to stop the fighting and colluded with the Buddhist community as they “unleashed a campaign of violence and mass round-ups against the Rohingya”.
Police and paramilitary forces “opened fire on Rohingya with live ammunition” on June 12 as they tried to stop Rakhine mobs from burning their homes in the capital, Sittwe, the report said.
“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 Rakhines, Rohingyas and others in Burma and Bangladesh, where Rohingyas 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 and mistreatment of Rohingya detainees who have faced discrimination for decades in Burma.
Human Rights Watch is the latest voice to call for an outside investigation and protection for the Rohingya community. Rights groups and several Islamic nations say the Rohingyas continue to face abuses.
Earlier this week, the government defended its handling of the issue saying it had “exercised maximum restraint”.