As the United Nations focuses on the details of how over 600,000 Rohingya are to be returned to Myanmar from refugee camps in Bangladesh, the government of Myanmar is rapidly destroying all evidence of a rapidly unfolding genocide.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday said that it has new satellite images showing 55 abandoned villages being burned to the ground in Rakhine State, home to some 1 million Rohingya, a Muslim minority subjected to a horrific campaign of violence in the country since August.
The Rohingya population there has been living in what Amnesty International has described as apartheid-like conditions for decades: They don’t have citizenship rights and do not have freedom of movement in the country.
In late August, after Rohingya insurgents launched deadly attacks on police posts, the Myanmar police deployed a response that has included mass killings, rapes, starvation, and the destruction of villages. About 700,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh since then, making it what the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) calls “the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis.”
While the United Nations has called the military operation ethnic cleansing, possibly rising to the level of genocide, authorities in Myanmar insist that security forces are merely targeting “terrorists.” Myanmar has repeatedly blocked U.N. investigators and rights groups from the region, making any investigation into crimes against humanity all the more difficult.
But Myanmar has also destroyed a total of 362 villages in six months, which, HRW’s Asia Director Brad Adams said is nothing short of destroying evidence of crimes.
“Many of these villages were scenes of atrocities against Rohingya and should be preserved so that the experts appointed by the UN to document these abuses can properly evaluate the evidence to identify those responsible,” said Adams in the report. “Bulldozing these areas threatens to erase both the memory and the legal claims of the Rohingya who lived there.”
Meanwhile, even as mass graves continue to be discovered, Bangladesh and Myanmar are working on a process to return the Rohingya to Myanmar, setting up reception centers to process those who want to repatriate.
But by law, the destroyed villages are now deemed government land, so it’s unclear where, exactly the Rohingya will be living,
The United Nations is focusing on how the Rohingya can be returned to Myanmar in a safe manner, with human rights and access to crucial services in tact, but Reuters reports that the UNHCR is excluded from the refugee repatriation process.
“People won’t go home unless they are guaranteed safety and security, unless they have citizenship, unless they can send their children to school and have a chance of a future,” said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF Director of Emergency Program.