Military action against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority may amount to crimes against humanity, Amnesty International said, as the government called a meeting of regional leaders to discuss the issue.
“The Myanmar military has targeted Rohingya civilians in a callous and systematic campaign of violence,” Rafendi Djamin, Southeast Asia director for the rights group, said in a statement on Monday.
“The deplorable actions of the military could be part of a widespread and systematic attack on a civilian population and may amount to crimes against humanity.”
The report comes as Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi is meeting fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asians Nations (ASEAN) in Yangon amid regional concerns over the situation in western Rakhine state.
The deplorable actions of the military could be part of a widespread and systematic attack on a civilian population and may amount to crimes against humanity
Al Jazeera’s Florence Looi said Myanmar has been coming under a lot of pressure from fellow member states of ASEAN, which has traditionally followed a policy of non-interference in a member states’ internal affairs.
“But that seems to be changing,” Looi said, reporting from the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.
“Myanmar says the purpose of the meeting is for the member states to air their concerns as well as to get a better understanding of what is happening in Rakhine state.
“But some critics have pointed out that this could be nothing more than a public relations exercise.”
Between 76 to 400 Rohingya have been killed in a military crackdown since October 9 attacks on police stations left nine officers dead.
Myanmar says at least 93 people – 17 police officers and soldiers and 76 alleged “attackers” (including six who reportedly died during interrogation) – have been killed and some 575 suspects arrested.
An estimated 27,000 Rohingya have fled to the neighbouring Bangladesh for safety.
Rohingya advocacy groups, however, claim about 400 Rohingya – described by the United Nations as among the most persecuted groups worldwide – have been killed in the military operations, women have been raped and Rohingya villages torched.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman called for the 10-nation bloc to coordinate humanitarian aid and investigate alleged atrocities committed against Rohingya people.
Anifah said events in Rakhine state were a matter of regional security and stability, noting that about 56,000 Rohingya now live in Muslim-majority Malaysia having fled previous unrest in Myanmar.
Malaysia has heavily criticised Myanmar’s government and military over the violence, with Prime Minister Najib Razak and his cabinet referring to it as “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing”.
Rakhine, located in Myanmar’s west, has long been home to simmering tensions between the Rohingya and the country’s Buddhist majority population. The last major outbreak of violence in 2012 left hundreds dead and drove 140,000 people into internal displacement camps.
“Many analysts are expecting ASEAN leaders to push for some of the things that the international community has been asking for, the most important of which is the full resumption of aid to Rakhine state where an estimated 160,000 people are in need of aid,” Al Jazeera’s Looi said.
Myanmar has denied the accusations, saying many of the reports are fabricated and it insists the strife in Rakhine state is an internal matter.
In addition to fending off diplomatic pressure over the crisis, the Myanmar government has also invited a handpicked media delegation to visit the affected region this week.
Amnesty cautioned that the scale and extent of the violence is unclear, as the military has closed Rakhine to outside observers, including aid workers. But witness accounts detail specific cases of murder, looting and rape.
In one incident on November 12, following an alleged skirmish between the army and villagers armed mostly with swords and other simple weapons, helicopter gunships descended on a village and sprayed bullets indiscriminately, killing civilians fleeing in a panic, Amnesty said.
This was corroborated to an extent by Myanmar army officials, who said helicopters opened fire that day and killed six people, who officials said were “insurgents”.
Refugees told Amnesty that the military is torching villages. Satellite images Amnesty obtained show 1,200 burned structures, which they say is in line with images released by Human Rights Watch in November that showed 1,500 burned homes.
On Friday, the UN human rights office said it was getting daily reports of rapes and killings of the Rohingya and independent monitors were being barred from investigating.
UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein said in a statement that the government, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, had taken a “short-sighted, counterproductive, even callous” approach to the crisis, risking grave long-term repercussions for the region.
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