YANGON (AFP) - Satellite imagery shows Myanmar authorities have bulldozed at least 55 Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine in recent months, Human Rights Watch said Friday (Feb 23), condemning the government for erasing evidence at sites where troops are accused of atrocities.
Northern Rakhine has been nearly emptied of its Rohingya population since last August, when a military crackdown drove some 700,000 of the persecuted group across the border to Bangladesh.
The United Nations has accused Myanmar of waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Muslim minority, who face acute discrimination in the mainly Buddhist nation.
Myanmar denies the charge but has blocked UN investigators from investigating an area where thousands of Rohingya are believed to have been killed.
Hundreds of Rohingya villages were already damaged by fire during the initial months of violence last year, when soldiers and Buddhist vigilantes terrorised communities with arson, gunfire and rape, according to refugees.
Since November Myanmar authorities have further demolished at least 55 villages with heavy machinery, clearing out all structures and vegetation, satellite images obtained by Human Rights Watch showed.
At least two of the flattened villages were previously undamaged by fires, the watchdog said.
"Many of these villages were scenes of atrocities against Rohingya and should be preserved so that the experts appointed by the UN to document these abuses can properly evaluate the evidence to identify those responsible," said HRW's Asia director Brad Adams.
"Bulldozing these areas threatens to erase both the memory and the legal claims of the Rohingya who lived there," he added.
Haunting images of levelled villages first circulated on social media earlier this month after they were posted by an EU diplomat.
At the time Myanmar's Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye told AFP the demolition was part of a plan to "build back" villages to a higher standard than before.
Myanmar has trumpeted a government effort to rebuild violence-gutted Rakhine and welcome back refugees under a repatriation agreement with Dhaka that was supposed to commence in January.
But many Rohingya refuse to return without the guarantee of basic rights and safety.
Analysts have also sounded the alarm over the government's rehabilitation projects, calling the sweeping destruction of villages, mosques and property only the latest move to erase the Rohingya's ties to their ancestral lands, and prevent them returning.
Members of the Muslim minority have been systematically stripped of their legal rights in Myanmar in recent decades.
They have also been targeted by bouts of violence and corralled into grim displacement camps in other parts of Rakhine state.
Myanmar's army says its August crackdown was a proportionate counterstrike against Rohingya rebels who attacked police posts in late August, killing around a dozen officials.
Many in the Buddhist majority revile the Rohingya and brand the group as foreign interlopers, despite their having lived in Rakhine for generations.