By Kyaw Ye Lynn
The United Nations and rights groups are pressuring the Myanmar government to conduct an independent probe into allegations that soldiers are killing, raping and torturing Muslim villagers in western Rakhine State.
Aid delivery and access to information in the area have been tightly restricted as Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships near the Bangladesh border have been under a military lockdown since Oct. 9, when armed individuals killed nine police officers and stole dozens of weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
The ongoing military operation in the area, which is predominantly occupied by the country's stateless Muslim Rohingya population, has generated reports of widespread abuses against civilians.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement Monday that satellite imagery shows evidence of fire-related destruction in the villages of Kyetyoepyin, Ngar Sar Kyu and Warpaik in Maungdaw Township on Oct. 22.
It demanded the government allow the UN to assist in investigating the reported destruction of villages.
“New satellite images reveal destruction in Rakhine State that demands an impartial and independent investigation, something the Burmese government has yet to show it is capable of doing,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW.
“The government should end its blanket denial of wrongdoing and blocking of aid agencies, and stop making excuses for keeping international monitors from the area,” he added.
Rohingya groups, human rights organizations, and media accounts quoting witnesses have claimed that such acts of violence have been taking place against Rohingya in Maungdaw district since Oct. 9.
Government officials, however, have claimed "Bengali" villagers burned their own homes to evoke international sympathy before troops enter the villages in search of suspected attackers and stolen weapons.
Local nationalists have long labeled Rohingya “Bengali” -- a term suggesting they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, and therefore have no right to Myanmar citizenship.
“There are many people [there] who support terrorists,” said Zaw Htay, deputy director of the president's office in an interview with Voice of America (VOA) last week.
“They make big media campaigns using the photos of burnt villages, and it seems they get a lot of funding,” he said.
The government has blamed the raids on the Aqa Mul Mujahidin organization, which it described as being affiliated with the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), a shadowy extremist group that takes its name from the Rohingya.
Though most experts believe the RSO’s continued existence is a myth, the government has classified it as an extremist group and officials blame it for recent attacks on border areas.
Talking to Anadolu Agency on the phone Monday, a 74-year-old Rohingya man claimed his home was set on fire before him.
“I don’t know who set other houses in my village on fire, but my house was burnt by soldiers,” said the man, originally a resident of Warpaik village, who is now sheltering in Kyetyoepyin after his home was destroyed.
Since the Oct. 9 attacks, at least 43 people -- including nine police, four soldiers and 29 suspected attackers (among them two women) -- have been killed, or have died, in Maungdaw and Yathay Taung.
The Myanmar government had said over 50 people have been detained on suspicion of involvement.
On Monday, a military statement said three young members of a Rohingya family had been released after originally being detained last week on suspicion of involvement in the Oct. 9 attacks.
The trio were arrested with their parents by military members patrolling near the Bangladesh border.
The statement added that authorities continued to detain their parents, but had allowed the daughter and two sons home.
With police and soldiers continuing to hunt those responsible for the initial raids, many members of both the Rohingya and Rakhine communities have fled their homes in fear.
Local media reported the director of the Arakan Project, a Rohingya rights organization, as saying last week that around 30 Muslim women had been raped in a single village Oct. 19 by soldiers in Maungdaw during area clearance operations.
The Myanmar Times cited Chris Lewa as saying that five girls aged between 16 and 18 years old were also raped in another village Oct. 25 and two other women at another location Oct. 20.Anadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.