Burma has bulldozed the remains of Rohingya Muslim villages to make way for refugee resettlement, not to destroy evidence of atrocities, an official leading reconstruction efforts in the troubled northern state of Rakhine said on Monday.
Last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch said it had analysed satellite imagery showing Burma had flattened at least 55 villages in Rakhine, including two that appeared to be intact before heavy machinery arrived.
The group said the demolitions could have erased evidence of atrocities by security forces in what the United Nations and the United States have called an ethnic cleansing campaign against the stateless Rohingya minority.
A military crackdown prompted by Rohingya insurgents’ attacks on 30 police posts and an army base on 25 August drove 688,000 people from their villages and across the border into Bangladesh, many of them recounting killings, rape and arson by Burmese soldiers and police.
Burma has denied most allegations and asked for more evidence of abuses, while denying independent journalists, human rights monitors and UN-appointed investigators access to the conflict zone.
De facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi in October set up the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development (UEHRD) to lead the domestic response.
Veteran economist Aung Tun Thet, who is the chairman of the body, said villages were being bulldozed to make it easier for the government to resettle refugees as near as possible to their former homes.
“There’s no desire to get rid of the so-called evidence,” he told reporters on Monday, responding to the allegations of demolition of evidence.
“What we have intended [is] to ensure that the buildings for the people that return can be easily built,” he added.
Aung Tun Thet also said Burma would do its best to make sure repatriation under an agreement signed with Bangladesh in November would be “fair, dignified and safe.”
In a speech to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres restated his call for Burma to “ensure unfettered humanitarian access in Rakhine State.”
The United Nations suspended activities in northern Rakhine and evacuated non-critical staff after the government suggested it had supported Rohingya insurgents last year. The UN refugee agency has been excluded from the repatriation process.
“The Rohingya community desperately needs immediate, life-saving assistance, long-term solutions and justice,” Guterres said on Monday.