Aerial photos of Rakhine State have emerged that appear to show several bulldozed Rohingya settlements, renewing accusations Myanmar is wiping out the homes and history of the Muslim minority.
Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine State to Bangladesh since insurgent attacks on police posts triggered a brutal military crackdown.
The UN has led global condemnation of the army action, describing it as ethnic cleansing.
Rights activists also say the systematic destruction of hundreds of villages, mosques and property is effectively rubbing out the Rohingya’s ties to their ancestral lands.
The Muslim minority are not recognized as an ethnic group in Myanmar and have faced decades of persecution.
Many fear the recent crackdown is a push to rid the country of the Rohingya for good.
Photos posted on social media after a diplomatic tour of the conflict zone in northern Rakhine State last week appear to back that up.
The haunting pictures, posted on the Twitter account of the European Union Ambassador to Myanmar Kristian Schmidt, show a scarred territory with large patches of levelled land.
Villages incinerated during the army crackdown now appear to have been completely bulldozed, devoid of all structures and even trees.
“The Rohingyas are shocked to see their villages razed,” said Chris Lewa, head of the NGO the Arakan Project, which has worked for years with Rohingya in Rakhine State.
They fear the upcoming rainy season will further wash away any signs of their past lives, she added.
“The Rohingya have the feeling that they (the military) are doing away with the last traces of their presence in the region,” she said.
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a repatriation agreement last year that was supposed to commence in January.
But many Rohingya refuse to return without the guarantee of basic rights and safety.
Authorities in Myanmar also insist they will heavily vet all returnees and only take back those “verified” as residents – a complex and controversial process critics say is likely to exclude large numbers of people.
Myanmar’s Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye, the lead official in the resettlement process, said the bulldozing was part of a plan to “build back” villages to a higher standard than before.
“We are trying to have the new village plan,” he said. “When they come back they can live in their place of origin or nearest to their place of origin.”
He said it is taking time because of a labor shortage sparked by the Rohingya exodus and that the government plans to pay returnees to help rebuild their own homes.
Accusations of a systematic campaign to rid Rakhine of Rohingya history are not new.
Last year the United Nations human rights office alleged efforts were underway to “effectively erase signs of memorable landmarks in the geography of the Rohingya landscape and memory.”
Access to Rakhine remains tightly controlled, despite a snowballing number of allegations of massacres of Rohingya villagers in Rakhine.
The arrest of two Reuters journalists investigating the extra-judicial killing of ten Rohingya “terrorist” suspects in custody has upped pressure on civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi to condemn the army.
Her administration is in a delicate power-sharing arrangement with the army, which ruled with an iron fist for five decades.
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