BANGKOK (AP) — Myanmar’s military is building installations on land in villages that had been occupied by Muslim Rohingya who fled to neighboring Bangladesh after their homes were burned down in what analysts charge was a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the authorities, Amnesty International said Monday.
The London-based rights group said in a report that eyewitness testimony and analysis of satellite images established that Myanmar’s Rakhine state is being militarized at an alarming pace with the construction of army bases, helipads and roads built in villages that had been burned and bulldozed.
Rights groups and the United Nations charge that about 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled to Bangladesh were forced out by a scorched earth campaign by Myanmar security forces that began last August after a Rohingya insurgent group carried out attacks on about 30 security outposts and other targets.
“What we are seeing in Rakhine state is a land grab by the military on a dramatic scale,” said Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Director. “New bases are being erected to house the very same security forces that have committed crimes against humanity against Rohingya.”
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay told The Associated Press that the bulldozing is mainly to prepare burned areas for resettlement and reconstruction, and only covers areas where structures had already been burned down. The government has denied burning down villages to drive out the Rohingya.
“We are going to build new villages and new homes and resettle people there according to the village planning,” Zaw Htay said by phone. He denied separate allegations that the bulldozing was to destroy evidence of human rights abuses by the army, a major concern of human rights groups.
“The bulldozing of entire villages is incredibly worrying,” said Hassan. “Myanmar’s authorities are erasing evidence of crimes against humanity, making any future attempts to hold those responsible to account extremely difficult.”
The operation has raised concerns among rights groups that the authorities are destroying evidence of crimes against the Rohingya, which could hinder future investigations.
Zaw Htay also rebutted the charges that the construction amounted to militarization.
“It’s not true that the army is building bases in the region,” he said. “There are only police posts for regional security and law enforcement reasons.”
Myanmar’s government has pledged to accept back the Rohingya who fled, and it has been constructing shelters, including dozens at a large transit camp in northern Rakhine state near the Bangladesh border. But Amnesty International said the flattening of Rohingya villages and the new construction could make the voluntary, safe and dignified return of Rohingya refugees a distant prospect.
“The military is not only building security force bases and roads but also bulldozing everything including house, trees, landmarks and even graveyards,” said Mohammad Ali, a Rohingya resident of Buthidaung town in northern Rakhine.