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HRW Accuses Burma of Ethnic Cleansing

This picture taken on October 10, 2012 shows an elderly Muslim Rohingya man pictured outside his tent at the Dabang Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, located on the outskirts of Sittwe, capital of Burma's western Rakhine state.
This picture taken on October 10, 2012 shows an elderly Muslim Rohingya man pictured outside his tent at the Dabang Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, located on the outskirts of Sittwe, capital of Burma's western Rakhine state.
Human Rights Watch says Burma's government and local authorities engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the ethnic Rohingya Muslims.

In a 156-page report released Monday in Bangkok, the group says authorities actively sought to displace Rohingyas in western Rakhine state following sectarian violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims.

Matthew Smith is a Burma researcher with Human Rights Watch. He said officials and security allowed extremist politicians and monks to incite anti-Muslim rumors in Rakhine state, also known as Arakan. He says they then did little to stop the bloodshed.

"Not only did they fail to intervene, but government security forces and authorities destroyed mosques, effectively blocked humanitarian aid to Rohingya populations and at times acted alongside Arakanese to forcibly displace Muslims," he said. "Security forces raided Muslim homes and villages, at times shooting at villagers, looting homes and businesses, rounding up people of all ages, including teenagers and children as young as eight years old."

The report, titled "All You Can Do is Pray", is based on interviews with more than 100 Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists, many of them eyewitnesses.

Some of the worst incidents include a massacre of 70 Rohingya on October 23, 2012 in Yan Thei village. Despite advanced warning of an attack, security disarmed the Rohingya of sticks and other simple weapons and then failed to protect them from Buddhist mobs. Among them were 28 children hacked to death, half of them less than five years old.

According to official figures, the total death toll from two rounds of clashes in June and October was about 200 people with more than 100,000 left homeless - the vast majority of them Rohingya Muslims.

But, Human Rights Watch says it uncovered evidence of at least four mass graves created or overseen by local security, raising concerns that the death toll could be higher.

Phil Robertson is deputy Asia director for the New York-based group. He said it is calling for an independent international investigation and for authorities to be held responsible.

"There are no indications that the government has seriously investigated or attempted to hold accountable those responsible for planning, organizing or participating in the violence," he said. "Government security forces either did nothing to stop the violence or participated in it."

A Burma government spokesman was not immediately available to respond to the accusations, but authorities have in the past strongly denied security forces participated in attacks. Officials claim they were simply overwhelmed by mob violence and have downplayed the attacks as communal rather than largely one-sided against Muslims.

The report comes as the European Union is meeting to discuss lifting economic sanctions against Burma. The EU and others, including the United States, suspended sanctions last year to reward Burma's democratic reforms.

Robertson said it is too early to lift sanctions as benchmarks for progress have not been met and it would diminish the EU's leverage.

"Essentially, in our view, the EU member countries are ditching measures that have motivated the current progress on human rights and gambling on the goodwill of Burma's government and military to keep their word to keep reforms on track," he added.

The Rohingya are not recognized as citizens in Burma and are considered by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Thousands of Rohingya have fled Burma in overcrowded wooden boats that wash up in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, while hundreds more have drowned in attempt to flee after last year's violence.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is visiting Burma this week.

Robertson says Burma's neighbors have a particular responsibility on the Rohingya issue.

"We think that the president of Indonesia and the prime minister of Malaysia, and other countries which are receiving significant numbers of Rohingya coming by boats, have an important role to play in engaging with Burma and telling Burma that this is unacceptable, that these people are citizens of Burma," explained Robertson. "They must be considered as such and that, for Burma to continue to pursue policies that encourage people to flee on rickety boats onto the oceans and land in neighboring countries, is unacceptable."

Leaders of the Association of SouthEast Asian Nations are meeting for a summit in Brunei this week but, because they only act on consensus, they are not expected to discuss the issue.

Robertson says ASEAN has been virtually silent on the Rohingya issue and urged the group to reconsider whether Burma is still an appropriate host for the ASEAN summits in 2014.