Thu 20 Sep 2012
Filed under: Inside Burma,News
The authorities in Burma are carrying out a secret program of ethnic cleansing of stateless Muslims, demolishing their communities and bulldozing historic mosques.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled the western port of Sittwe after bloody conflict with Buddhist members of the Rakhine ethnic group. The state authorities, supported by the national government, have taken advantage of the unrest to flatten Muslim neighbourhoods, forcibly close Muslim-owned shops and demolish mosques, making it impossible for the displaced Rohingya to return to their homes.
“This is a case of genocide going on now,” said Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya and former political prisoner, who works for the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres. “Their plan is to move all the Rohingya out.”
The ethnic cleansing has taken place under the noses of UN aid workers, who are tending to the estimated 70,000 displaced people in Rakhine State, but who say they know nothing of the destruction of the mosques. Sittwe has been riven by ethnic conflict since late May, when reports that a Buddhist girl had been raped by three Rohingya men spread through Rakhine State.
On June 3, 10 Muslim men on a bus near Sittwe were beaten to death by a large group of Rakhine.
On June 8, several days of rioting, killing and the burning of houses began in Sittwe and in remote northern communities close to the border with Bangladesh. Estimates of the number of dead range from an official figure of 87 to several hundred.
It was in the second half of June that the authorities embarked on the systematic clearance of the areas damaged by the arson, witnesses said.
The clearance was carried out with the participation of the national and state governments: 200 firefighters were sent from Rangoon, and one of President Thein Sein’s deputy ministers was on hand.
This reporter visited five mosques in Sittwe which, by the account of local Buddhist Rakhine, were demolished by bulldozers a fortnight after the violence had ended. They included Musa Dewan Mosque, which dated from the 19th century. Like the other mosques, it was structurally intact after the violence, despite superficial scorching of its walls.
“I was so surprised,” said Khine Soe Linn, a Rakhine man who saw firemen removing furniture and preparing to demolish the Abdul Hadi Mosque on Main Road in Sittwe. “This mosque had hardly been damaged, but they were knocking it down.”
Rohingya leaders identified four other mosques that they said had been destroyed. Buddhist Rakhine, who were picking over waste ground where Rohingya houses once stood, said that three other mosques in the Narzi area had been razed by bulldozers.
The few mosques allowed to remain standing appear to be in tourist areas, where their absence would be noticed by outsiders. Apart from a single enclave, whose inhabitants are unable to leave their homes for fear of attack, most of the estimated 100,000 Rohingya in Sittwe – half the city’s former population – have fled, mainly to camps with food shortages, bad hygiene, disease and a lack of doctors.
When the head of the UN in Burma, Ashok Nigam, visited Sittwe, he was told that the affected areas had been cleared for “town planning”.
Hla Thein, the Attorney-General of the Rakhine State government, said the damaged buildings had been removed because they were “not good to look at” and would inflame angry feelings. Asked why the mosques had been demolished, Mr Hla Thein said: “As far as I know, there was no demolition of mosques. Foreigners twist the truth.”