Satellite images show huge swath of coastal town destroyed in a wave of violence which has left dozens dead
Burma’s president has admitted an unprecedented wave of ethnic violence has targeted his country’s Rohingya Muslim population, destroying whole villages and large parts of towns.
Thein Sein’s acknowledgement follows the release of satellite imagesshowing the severe scale of the destruction in one coastal town, where most – if not all – of the Muslim population appears to have been displaced and their homes destroyed.
The pictures, acquired by Human Rights Watchshow destruction to the coastal town of Kyaukpyu in the country’s west. They reveal an area of destruction 35 acres in size in which some 811 buildings and boats have been destroyed.
The images confirm reports of an orgy of destruction in the town which occurred in a 24-hour period in the middle of last week after violence in the province broke out again on 21 October.
The attacks in Arakan province in the country’s west – also known as Rakhine – appears to have been part of a wave of communal violence pitting Arakan Buddhists against Muslims that has hit five separate towns and displaced thousands of people.
“There have been incidents of whole villages and parts of the towns being burned down in Arakan state,” Thein Sein’s spokesman said.
A government spokesman put the death toll up until Friday at 112. But within hours state media revised it to 67 killed from 21-25 October, with 95 wounded and nearly 3,000 houses destroyed.
The president’s comments followed a warning from the office of the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, that ethnic violence was endangering political progress in Burma.
“The vigilante attacks, targeted threats and extremist rhetoric must be stopped. If this is not done … the reform and opening-up process being currently pursued by the government is likely to be jeopardised,” the statement said.
The Burmese government is struggling to contain ethnic and religious tensions suppressed during nearly half a century of military rule that ended last year.
Inter-ethnic violence broke out earlier this year, triggered by the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Muslim men.
Releasing the satellite images, Human Rights Watch said it had identified 633 buildings and 178 houseboats and floating barges which were destroyed in an area occupied predominantly by Rohingya.
A committee of MPs led by the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi called on Friday for security reinforcements and swift legal action against those behind the killings and destruction.
According to Reuters, dozens of boats full of Rohingyas with no food or water fled Kyaukpyu, an industrial zone important to China, and other recent hotspots and were seeking access on Friday to overcrowded refugee camps around the state capital, Sittwe.
Some 3,000 Rohingya were reported to have been blocked from reaching Sittwe by government forces and landed on a nearby island.
“These latest incidents between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhists demonstrate how urgent it is that the authorities intervene to protect everyone, and break the cycle of discrimination and violence,” Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific deputy director, Isabelle Arradon, said.
The latest violence erupted as a Burmese website in Norway – the Democratic Voice of Burma – reported it had acquired a document by a group calling itself the All-Arakanese Monks’ Solidarity Conference. calling for all Rohingya to be expelled from the country.
“Burma’s government urgently needs to provide security for the Rohingya in Arakan state, who are under vicious attack,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless the authorities also start addressing the root causes of the violence, it is only likely to get worse.”
Human Rights Watch fears the death toll is far higher, based on allegations from witnesses fleeing scenes of carnage and the government’s well-documented history of underestimating figures that might lead to criticism of the state.
The Rohingya are officially stateless. Buddhist-majority Burma’s government regards the estimated 800,000 of them in the country as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and not as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups, and denies them citizenship.
But many of those expelled from Kyaukpyu are not Rohingya but Muslims from the officially recognised Kaman minority, said Chris Lewa, director of the Rohingya advocacy group, Arakan Project.
“It’s not just anti-Rohingya violence anymore, it’s anti-Muslim,” she said.
It was unclear what set off the latest arson and killing on Sunday.