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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Two satellite images – left from Dec. 2, and right, from Feb. 19 – show how the predominantly Rohingya village of Thit Tone Nar Gwa Son has been leveled by authorities.

Sunday, February 25, 2018 1:00 am

Rohingya dwellings bulldozed

Myanmar cites rebuilding; others see obliteration

Associated Press

BANGKOK – First, their villages were burned to the ground. Now, Myanmar's government is using bulldozers to literally erase them from the earth – in a vast operation rights groups say is destroying crucial evidence of mass atrocities against the nation's ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority.

Satellite images of Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state, released to The Associated Press by Colorado-based DigitalGlobe, show that dozens of empty villages and hamlets have been leveled by authorities in recent weeks – far more than previously reported.

They were set ablaze in the wake of violence last August, when a brutal clearance operation by security forces drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into exile in Bangladesh.

While Myanmar's government claims it's simply trying to rebuild a devastated region, the operation has raised deep concern among human rights advocates, who say the government is destroying what amounts to scores of crime scenes before any credible investigation takes place.

The operation has also horrified the Rohingya, who believe the government is intentionally eviscerating the dwindling remnants of their culture to make it nearly impossible for them to return.

One displaced Rohingya woman, whose village was among those razed, said she recently visited her former home in Myin Hlut and was shocked by what she saw.

Most houses had been torched last year, but now, “everything is gone, not even the trees are left,” the woman, named Zubairia, told AP by telephone. “They just bulldozed everything ... I could hardly recognize it.”

The 18-year-old said other homes in the same area that had been abandoned but not damaged were also flattened. “All the memories that I had there are gone,” she said. “They've been erased.”

Myanmar's armed forces are accused not just of burning Muslim villages with the help of Buddhist mobs, but of carrying out massacres, rapes and widespread looting. The latest crisis in Rakhine state began in August after Rohingya insurgents launched a series of unprecedented attacks on security posts.

Aerial photographs of leveled villages in northern Rakhine State were first made public Feb. 9 when the European Union's ambassador to Myanmar, Kristian Schmidt, posted images taken from an aircraft of what he described as a “vast bulldozed area” south of the town of Maungdaw.

The images offer an important window into what is effectively a part of Myanmar that is largely sealed off to the outside world. Myanmar bars independent media access to the state.

Myint Khine, a government administrator in Maungdaw, said the government had no ulterior motive.

“Of course we have been using machines like earth removers and bulldozers because we have to clear the ground first before building new houses,” he said.

Chris Lewa, whose Arakan Project monitors the persecuted Muslim minority's plight, said the degree to which the villages had been razed would make it even harder for the Rohingya, who have no citizenship and few rights, to ever reclaim their land.

“How will they identify where they lived, if nothing is left, if nothing can be recognized?” Lewa said. “Their culture, their history, their past, their present – it's all being erased. When you see the pictures, it's clear that whatever was left – the mosques, the cemeteries, the homes – they're gone.”