BANGKOK — A leading human rights group on Monday accused authorities and Buddhist monks in Myanmar of inciting an ethnic cleansing campaign against the country's Rohingya Muslim minority in which hundreds of people were killed and 125,000 forced from their homes.
Human Rights Watch also described the violence and bloody massacres in western Rakhine state in 2012 as crimes against humanity, and slammed President Thein Sein and his government for failing to bring the perpetrators to justice months after mobs of Buddhist monks razed thousands of Muslim homes.
While state security forces sometimes intervened to protect fleeing Muslims, more often, they fueled the unrest, the rights group said, either by standing by idle or directly participating.
The allegations, detailed in a new report by the New York-based rights group, came the same day the European Union lifted all sanctions on Myanmar except an arms embargo to reward the Southeast Asian nation for its progress toward democratic rule.
Win Myaing, a government spokesman for Rakhine state, strongly rejected the allegations against state security forces, saying Human Rights Watch investigators "don't understand the situation on the ground." He said the government had no prior knowledge of impending attacks and deployed forces to stop the unrest.
"We don't want unrest in the country because such incidents stall the democratic process and affect development," he said.
The spread of sectarian violence has posed one of the greatest challenges yet to Thein Sein's nascent government as it takes steps to liberalize the country after almost half a century of military dictatorship. Rakhine state was shaken twice by anti-Muslim violence, first in June, then again in October. In March, unrest spread for the first time to central Myanmar, where dozens of people were killed in the city of Meikhtila.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the U.S. is aware of the allegations in the Human Rights Watch report and is looking into them. The U.S. remains concerned about violence directed against religious and ethnic minorities in Myanmar, and continues to call on the government to prevent further outbreaks of violence and allow unhindered humanitarian access to the displaced, he said.
Also Monday, the British Broadcasting Corp. aired dramatic video footage showing police in Meikhtila standing by as looting, arson and multiple attacks against Muslims were underway.
In western Myanmar, the crisis goes back decades and is rooted in a highly controversial dispute over where the region's Muslim inhabitants are really from. Although many Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are widely denigrated by majority Buddhists as foreign intruders who came from neighboring Bangladesh to steal scarce land.