Myanmar 'Burned Rohingya Villages' After Making Deal To Repatriate Refugees From Bangladesh

A rights group has accused the army in Myanmar of burning down dozens of villages inhabited by Muslim Rohingya even after the country reached a deal with Bangladesh to repatriate refugees.

At least 646,000 Rohingya people have fled to the neighboring nation since violence erupted in Myanmar's Rakhine state in August. In November, the two countries signed an agreement to return the refugees.

However, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released on Monday (December 18) satellite images purportedly showing the destruction of buildings in 40 villages occurred in October and November, increasing the total of raided villages to 354.

"The Burmese army's destruction of Rohingya villages within days of signing a refugee repatriation agreement with Bangladesh shows that commitments to safe returns were just a public relations stunt," said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW.

"The satellite imagery shows what the Burmese army denies: that Rohingya villages continue to be destroyed. Burmese government pledges to ensure the safety of returning Rohingya cannot be taken seriously."

Maungdaw township
Rakhine State
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Analysts have previously cast doubts on the effectiveness of the deal, arguing that refugees might not be willing to return home if they face violence.

Myanmar authorities have not yet commented on the images. However, they denied allegations of violence in the past.

Zaw Htay, Myanmar's government spokesman told AP: "I cannot give comment yet because I have not seen the statement on the satellite images yet."

Sann Win, a border guard police officer in northern Rakhine, said "there was no burning of any villagers' homes in October and November."

Violence explained

The Rohingya Muslims are an ethnic minority group that lives in segregated conditions in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, also known as Burma, mainly in Rakhine state. They are stateless people regarded as unwelcome migrants from Muslim-majority Bangladesh, and they have become one of the world's most persecuted ethnic minorities.

The Rohingya routinely flee persecution at the hands of authorities. The recent exodus was sparked following attacks by Rohingya insurgents that killed at least 11 people in Rakhine. The military retaliated with what was described as "clearance operations" to identify and root out militants. However, the the United Nations described it a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

Rohingya Muslims
Rohingya Muslim refugees walk along a path inside the Thankhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar on November 25, 2017 ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

HRW released the images just days after a report by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) claimed that at least 6,700 Rohingya had been killed in Myanmar between 25 August and 24 September. The figure is in stark contrast with the official number of deaths given by Myanmar authorities, which said 400 people were killed, most of whom were alleged terrorists.

Myanmar's de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has faced scathing criticism for her prolonged silence and perceived inaction to resolve the ongoing crisis.

In her first address on the situation in September, she condemned human rights abuses, but failed to address U.N. claims of ethnic cleansing.

Suu Kyi did not use the word "Rohingya", explaining that it was too "emotive" and "highly charged" for an already affected population.

Burmese authorities refuse to refer to them as "Rohingya", a term that would denote their ethnicity.

The word is so contentious that even Pope Francis was urged not to use it during his official visit in Myanmar in November.