Rights activists have called for international monitors to safeguard the lives of thousands of Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State following last week’s deadly sectarian violence.
“We are begging international observers to come and witness what is actually happening - to stop the violence and attacks on innocent civilians,” Mohammad Nawsim, secretary of the Rohingya Human Rights Association based in Bangkok, told IRIN.
The Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority of 800,000, unrecognized as citizens by the Burmese government, have long faced persecution and discrimination in Myanmar.
His call comes one week after serious clashes, the second in less than five months, erupted between Muslim Rohingya and ethnic (mainly Buddhist) Rakhine across eight Rakhine townships (Kyaukpyu, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Myebon, Pauktaw, Ramree and Rathedaung) on 21 October.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 28,000 residents were displaced, more than 4,600 homes and religious buildings destroyed, and at least 76 people killed.
These figures do not include several thousand people who have fled their houses by sea, nor those who have arrived in Sittwe (the Rakhine State capital) since 21 October, OCHA said.
100,000 in IDP camps
The latest displacement follows a major outbreak of communal violence in June after the alleged rape of a Rakhine woman by a group of Muslim men in May, which left some 75,000, mostly Rohingya residents, displaced, the vast majority in nine overcrowded IDP camps in Sittwe.
The latest unrest brings the number of displaced now in camps in Rakhine to more than 100,000, putting a further strain on ongoing assistance by the government, the UN, and its partners on the ground.
Timely action and unhindered access are critical for life-saving assistance to reach these people, according to the UN, which is having difficulty accessing all those in need.
“As a clear benchmark, there should be unfettered 'round the clock' international access,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), including the presence of a UN human rights monitoring office in the country. “This is a top-level critical issue that needs to be addressed.”
On 27 October, HRW released satellite imagery it had received showing extensive destruction of homes and other property in a predominantly Rohingya area of the coastal town of Kyauk Pyu - one of several areas of new violence and displacement and where a major pipeline carrying Burmese gas to China begins.
More than 800 homes and buildings were destroyed, with many Rohingya in the town fleeing by sea towards Sittwe, 200km to the north.
“There has been no serious drive to prosecute those who have been instigating this hatred and violence,” said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an advocacy organization for the Rohingya.
Meanwhile, an uneasy calm has reportedly been restored across Rakhine State following a significant increase in security forces on the streets of affected towns and villages, state media reported.
The government-owned New Light of Myanmar said the region “is under control”.
According to the authorities, there are now 5,000 police officers deployed, as well as 1,000 border security forces. Additionally, the Burmese army reportedly has 10,000 troops in the region.
Lewa noted, however, that even during the ongoing state of emergency, monks were allowed to demonstrate, basically promoting hatred by demanding the expulsion of Muslims even last week.
"People in power, people in authority need to be taking a strong stance to not tolerate this any more," Lewa said.
Earlier, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, said the international community should ensure that “human rights considerations remain at the forefront of its engagement with Myanmar during this period of transition”.
Over the past year, the USA, the European Union, Australia and other countries have eased international sanctions against the former pariah state.