BANGKOK – Satellite imagery shows that Rohingya villages in Myanmar continued to be destroyed even as Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement last month to return refugees from the ethnic Muslim minority who had fled their country amid violence, Human Rights Watch said Monday.
The New York-based rights group said buildings were destroyed in 40 villages in northern Rakhine state in October and November, increasing the total to 354 villages that have been partially or completely destroyed since Aug. 25.
More than 630,000 Rohingya have fled from Myanmar into Bangladesh since Aug. 25, when Myanmar's army began what it called "clearance operations" following an attack on police posts by a group of Rohingya insurgents. Refugees arriving in Bangladesh said their homes were set on fire by soldiers and Buddhist mobs, and some reported being shot at by security forces.
In late November, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement covering the return of Rohingya who fled across their mutual border to escape the violence in Rakhine.
"Satellite imagery confirms that dozens of buildings were burned the same week" the agreement was signed, Human Right Watch said in a statement.
"The Burmese army's destruction of Rohingya villages within days of signing a refugee repatriation agreement with Bangladesh shows that commitments to safe returns were just a public relations stunt," said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch's Asia director. "The satellite imagery shows what the Burmese army denies: that Rohingya villages continue to be destroyed. Burmese government pledges to ensure the safety of returning Rohingya cannot be taken seriously."
Myanmar was formerly known as Burma.
Zaw Htay, Myanmar's government spokesman, said, "I cannot give comment yet because I have not seen the statement on the satellite images yet."
Sann Win, a border guard police officer in northern Rakhine, said by phone Monday that "there was no burning of any villagers' homes in October and November."
In September, Myanmar's government said more than 6,800 homes had been destroyed in the wave of violence, with all but about 200 of them belonging to Rohingya villagers.