SITTWE: Government forces stood by and watched as sectarian violence erupted last month in western Myanmar and then opened fire on Muslim Rohingyas as they tried to save their burning homes, Human Rights Watch claimed Wednesday.
In a 56-page report, the New York-based rights group called for strong international reaction to "atrocities" committed during last month's bloody unrest between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. The fighting that left at least 78 people dead has subsided but many tens of thousands remain homeless - mostly Rohingya in need of food, shelter and medical care.
"The government claims it is committed to ending ethnic strife and abuse, but recent events in (Rakhine) state demonstrate that state-sponsored persecution and discrimination persist," said Brad Adams, the group's Asia director. He urged the international community not to be "blinded by a romantic narrative of sweeping change" in the country.
The report was released as a U.N. human rights envoy visited Rakhine state to investigate the conflict that constituted some of Myanmar's deadliest sectarian bloodshed in years and raised international concerns about the Rohingyas' fate inside Myanmar.
Tomas Ojea Quintana's evaluation is likely to be regarded as a yardstick for measuring the reforms undertaken by elected President Thein Sein after Myanmar ended decades of repressive military rule.
Quintana has made clear that investigating the conflict is a priority of his week-long visit to Myanmar. He arrived Tuesday in Rakhine state for a two-day tour, visiting key sites of the June violence. He declined to answer journalists' questions about his initial findings.
Tensions between the Rakhines and the Rohingyas are longstanding, in part because many in Myanmar consider the Rohingyas to be illegal settlers from neighboring Bangladesh.
The trigger for the latest round of violence came after reports circulated that a Rakhine Buddhist woman was raped and killed in late May by three Muslim men.
In retaliation, an angry mob of Rakhine villagers attacked a bus on June 3 and killed 10 Muslims, leading to waves of angry rioting and arson attacks by both communities against the other.
Human Rights Watch said that government security forces were slow to stop the fighting and colluded with the Buddhist community as they "unleashed a campaign of violence and mass roundups against the Rohingya."
Police and paramilitary forces "opened fire on Rohingya with live ammunition" on June 12 as they tried to stop Rakhine mobs from burning their homes in the capital, Sittwe, the report said.
"When people tried to put out the fires, the paramilitary shot at us. And the group beat people with big sticks," the report quoted a Rohingya man in Sittwe as saying. The report was based on 57 interviews with Rakhine, Rohingya and others in both Myanmar and Bangladesh, where Rohingya sought refuge.
The report called for the release of hundreds of Rohingya men and boys who were detained in June. It cited a history of torture and mistreatment of Rohingya detainees who have faced discrimination for decades in Myanmar.
Human Rights Watch is the latest voice to call for an outside investigation and protection for the Rohingya community. Rights groups and several Islamic nations say the Rohingya continue to face abuses.
Earlier this week, the government defended its handling of the issue saying it had "exercised maximum restraint."
"The Myanmar government strongly rejects the accusations by some quarters that abuses and excessive use of force were made by the authorities in dealing with the situation," Foreign Minister Wunnna Maung Lwin told reporters Monday.