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Is Burma’s Government Directly Involved in Ethnic Cleansing?

Depressingly, the evidence is stacking up.

Last week was one of mixed news for the Burmese government. On the bright side, the European Union decided to permanently lift sanctions against the country and deeper trade ties with the United States were announced – both moves likely to result in more foreign investment and lucrative business deals. Shortly after, President Thein Sein received a peace prize from a prominent NGO for his role in promoting internal reforms.

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However, on the negative side, state agencies were accused of complicity in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Two things that don't really sound that worthy of a peace prize and raise serious questions about the ethics of the West's increasingly cosy relationship with Burma.

These allegations are outlined in a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in connection to two outbreaks of violence last year. In these attacks, the ethnic Rohingya Muslim community and other Burmese Muslims were attacked by government forces and mobs of local Buddhists. The violence, which took place in Burma’s western Rakhine state last June and October, left scores dead and over 100,000 displaced, most of whom have been crammed into IDP (internally displaced person) camps.

After recently returning from the site of last year's violence myself, the new report makes for essential reading. It documents many allegations that fit exactly with the testimony of witnesses I'd met around Sittwe, the capital of the afflicted region. It also cites evidence of open support from local political parties and religious groups for targeted attacks on the Rohingya minority – some calling directly for ethnic cleansing.

The report also mentions another incident, one in which 18 half-naked dead bodies were dumped by security forces in a Rohingya displacement camp. Subsequently, the police ordered local residents to bury the dead in a mass grave.

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Locals who saw the body pile before it was buried took photographs, which I managed to obtain. The images, most of which are too graphic to display without some kind of censorship, show corpses with a series of horrific wounds to their heads and bodies; in one case a man’s face is sliced almost into three parts. Another photo shows a dead child with a bloodied head lying next to a body bag crowded with maggots. Others have their hands attached to objects that they'd presumably been tied to while being executed.

Commenting on this incident, Matthew Smith – a researcher at Human Rights Watch – told me that there had been "no prosecutions for the killings, let alone an investigation". He added that he had "documented how local security officials stood by as people's hands were bound by local Arakanese Buddhists in Sittwe, and they did nothing. In other cases, they took part in killings. The lack of accountability will all but ensure this campaign of ethnic cleansing continues."

Other photographs from the collection showed the remains of what appeared to be a mother and a child on a beach not far from the displacement camps. The pallid, water-bloated body of the woman lies near-to the putrefying carcass of an infant with its rib-cage exposed. A local source told me that the corpses were found among many others that they assumed had been "killed in Sittwe city and thrown into the water".

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So just how involved are the government in these horrors and, more urgently, are they really backing an ongoing policy of ethnic cleansing? Without looking very hard, I soon got some disturbing news that pointed towards an answer. At the end of last week, I started getting reports from contacts I'd made in Rakhine state that government representatives, accompanied by members of the military, had been visiting Rohingya villages and threatening the residents.

"Many [government workers] entered our village and investigated every house," one witness told me, adding that they were pressuring the locals to "sign to accept Bengali identification cards", which would officially deprive them of any rights in Burma. Another explained that repeated visits by officials, including "some from the immigration department" and other government bodies were doing the same. Both mentioned that the military and others had promised that the residents would be attacked if they did not comply.

As one put it: "The authorities are [pressuring] us to accept an illegal Bengali identification card, and if not they [say they] will not protect us from the attacking of [our village]. It means that the government are entirely supporting the plans of Rakhine Buddhists to expel us."

Initially a little sceptical of the claims, I contacted trusted sources on the ground who confirmed the details independently and explained that the visits had been witnessed by many locals. HRW’s Matthew Smith said that he was aware of the incident and told me, "Rohingya have been coerced and threatened to register with immigration as 'Bengali', sending a message loud and clear that the authorities regard them as visitors. This is at the root of the problem and has been happening for months… These are state and union level officials. It's no secret that the abusive policy trail leads to Naypyidaw [home to Burma's government], yet Western governments continue to see what they want to see."

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After speaking to more witnesses, I managed to get hold of a mobile phone image allegedly showing a government delegation visiting a Rohingya village (above). While I can't be certain exactly what is happening in the photograph, the claims of the villagers I spoke to, coupled with the reports from Human Rights Watch, seem to suggest that the state has some kind of involvement in the ethnic cleansing of the region.

So far, according to my sources, none of those in the threatened villages have yet signed on as Bengalis. As a result, it's a serious worry that things are going to get violent again sooner or later in Rakhine state. Almost more disturbing than this is the fear that, if things do start to go that way again, the international community – particularly the West – will do next to nothing in response.

Follow Emanuel on Twitter: @EmanualStoakes

More on the Rohingya crisis:

Burma's Rohingya Ghettos Broke My Heart

Is the Burmese Military Keeping Rohingya Women As Sex Slaves?

I Spoke to the Woman Who Started the Rohingya Hashtag