Myanmar bulldozes what is left of Rohingya Muslim villages

In this file photo taken on September 7, 2017 a house burns in Gawdu Tharya village near Maungdaw in Rakhine state in northern Myanmar. (AFP)
Updated 23 February 2018
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Myanmar bulldozes what is left of Rohingya Muslim villages

BANGKOK: First, their villages were burned to the ground. Now, Myanmar’s government is using bulldozers to literally erase them from the earth — in a vast operation rights groups say is destroying crucial evidence of mass atrocities against the nation’s ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority.
Satellite images of Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state, released to The Associated Press by Colorado-based DigitalGlobe on Friday, show that dozens of empty villages and hamlets have been completely leveled by authorities in recent weeks — far more than previously reported. The villages were all set ablaze in the wake of violence last August, when a brutal clearance operation by security forces drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into exile in Bangladesh.
While Myanmar’s government claims it’s simply trying to rebuild a devastated region, the operation has raised deep concern among human rights advocates, who say the government is destroying what amounts to scores of crime scenes before any credible investigation takes place. The operation has also horrified the Rohingya, who believe the government is intentionally eviscerating the dwindling remnants of their culture to make it nearly impossible for them to return.
One displaced Rohingya woman, whose village was among those razed, said she recently visited her former home in Myin Hlut and was shocked by what she saw. Most houses had been torched last year, but now, “everything is gone, not even the trees are left,” the woman, named Zubairia, told AP by telephone. “They just bulldozed everything ... I could hardly recognize it.”
The 18-year-old said other homes in the same area that had been abandoned but not damaged were also flattened. “All the memories that I had there are gone,” she said. “They’ve been erased.”
Myanmar’s armed forces are accused not just of burning Muslim villages with the help of Buddhist mobs, but of carrying out massacres, rapes and widespread looting. The latest crisis in Rakhine state began in August after Rohingya insurgents launched a series of unprecedented attacks on security posts.
Aerial photographs of leveled villages in northern Rakhine State were first made public Feb. 9 when the European Union’s ambassador to Myanmar, Kristian Schmidt, posted images taken from an aircraft of what he described as a “vast bulldozed area” south of the town of Maungdaw.
Satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe indicates at least 28 villages or hamlets were leveled by bulldozers and other machinery in a 30-mile (50-kilometer) radius around Maungdaw between December and February; on some of the cleared areas, construction crews had erected new buildings or housing structures and helipads. A similar analysis by Human Rights Watch on Friday said at least 55 villages have been affected so far.
The images offer an important window into what is effectively a part of Myanmar that is largely sealed off to the outside world. Myanmar bars independent media access to the state.
The government has spoken of plans to rebuild the region for months, and it has been busily expanding roads, repairing bridges, and constructing shelters, including dozens at a large transit camp at Taungpyo, near the Bangladesh border. The camp opened in January to house returning refugees; but none have arrived and Rohingya have continued to flee.
Myint Khine, a government administrator in Maungdaw, said some of the new homes were intended for Muslims. But that does not appear to be the case for the majority of those built or planned so far, and many Rohingya fear authorities are seizing land they’ve lived on for generations.
One list, published by the government in December, indicated 787 houses would be constructed, most of them for Buddhists or Hindus. Only 22 of the houses were slated for “Bengalis” — the word Myanmar nationalists often use to describe the Rohingya, who they say are illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
Myint Khine said the government had no ulterior motive.
“Of course we have been using machines like earth removers and bulldozers because we have to clear the ground first before building new houses,” he said.
Chris Lewa, whose Arakan Project monitors the persecuted Muslim minority’s plight, said the degree to which the villages had been razed would make it even harder for the Rohingya, who have no citizenship and few rights, to ever reclaim their land.
“How will they identify where they lived, if nothing is left, if nothing can be recognized?” Lewa said. “Their culture, their history, their past, their present — it’s all being erased. When you see the pictures, it’s clear that whatever was left — the mosques, the cemeteries, the homes — they’re gone.”
Richard Weir, a Myanmar expert with Human Rights Watch, said on the images he had seen, “there’s no more landmarks, there’s no trees, there’s no vegetation.”
“Everything is wiped away, and this is very concerning, because these are crime scenes,” he said. “There’s been no credible investigation of these crimes. And so, what we’re talking about really is obstruction of justice.”
Both Weir and Lewa said no mass graves were known to have been destroyed. But, Weir added: “We don’t know where all the graves are ... because there is no access.”
Zubairia, who asked that only one of her names be used to protect her identify because she feared reprisals, said she did not believe any of the newly constructed homes were intended for Rohingya.
“Even if they give us small houses to live in, it will never be the same for us,” she said. “How can we be happy about our houses being ripped off from our land?“


Taliban push for withdrawal of foreign troops in two-day talks

Updated 19 December 2018
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Taliban push for withdrawal of foreign troops in two-day talks

  • Reject reports that discussions were centered around a cease-fire and Afghan polls
  • Meeting involved representatives from the US, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE

ISLAMABAD, KABUL: Putting an end to speculations surrounding the content of discussions that took place between representatives of the US and the Afghan Taliban during the two-day talks in the UAE, the militant group said on Wednesday that the “focal point of the discussion” was the “withdrawal of foreign troops".

The statement further rejected reports that a ceasefire, formation of an interim government, and parliamentary elections in Afghanistan were discussed between the two parties.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US' special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, led the delegation for the talks which began on Monday in the presence of officials from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

After the meetings, he had tweeted that the two-day talks, to promote intra-Afghan dialogue in order to end the conflict in Afghanistan, had been productive.

Khalilzad flew into Pakistan where he met the army's top commander, General Qamar Javed Bajwa in Rawalpindi, with the military spokesman's saying that matters of regional security and the Afghan peace process were discussed.

“Visiting dignitary appreciated Pakistan's efforts for the Afghan peace process. The COAS (Chief of the Army Staff) reiterated that peace in Afghanistan is important for Pakistan and assured cont efforts for bringing peace and stability in the region,” the spokesman tweeted.

He added that both sides discussed measures to create underlying conditions for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan after 40 years of conflict.

Earlier in the day, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said no talks had taken place with the Kabul administration and that other issues would not be discussed because the “root cause of all problems and the biggest obstacle to peace is the occupation of Afghanistan and bringing it to an end".

He added that any future negotiations would take placd after deliberations and consultations with the respective leadership from both sides.

Mujahid said that the Taliban representatives presented “documented information and proof to the participants about indiscriminate bombings against civilians and demanded its immediate halt. Talks were also held about humane treatment of prisoners and their freedom, a matter that shall be taken into consideration".

Another Taliban official, privy to the discussions that took place in the UAE, said that the US had called for the release of two professors from the American University of Kabul, who were kidnapped in 2016 and were in the Taliban's custody.

He added that US officials reiterated their longstanding concerns about the imminent threats to Washington from Afghanistan and that the Taliban assured them that their “activities are only limited to Afghanistan".

The official, who did not want to be identified, told Arab News that the Taliban's chief, Maulvi Habitullah, had authorized senior officials -- including former ministers Amir Khan Mutaqi, Mullah Abbas, and other senior leaders Siddiqullah, Hafiz Yahya Haqqani, Saadullah Hamas and Dr Faqeer -- to participate in the talks.

“As far as the results of these negotiations are concerned and how effective they shall prove in finding a peaceful solution to the continuing problems will be answered in the upcoming weeks and months,” the Taliban posted on their official website on Tuesday.

In Kabul, Omer Daudzai, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s newly-appointed envoy told a gathering on Wednesday that "work on the peace deal will begin in the near future". He gave no further details.

Due to the sensitive nature of the talks, no formal details of the meeting have been made available to the public yet. However, Reuters quoted a Taliban source on Tuesday when it reported that the Taliban had discussed conditions for a truce, swapping of prisoners, and the formation of an interim government with the US officials.

The reports, however, were rejected by Mujahid. “Reuters News Agency has been publishing false reports since yesterday about the meeting taking place between representatives of the Islamic Emirate and the United States in the United Arab Emirates,” he said.

“Talks in Abu Dhabi are taking place with the United States about ending the occupation and American intervention. Nothing about an interim government, ceasefire, elections nor any other internal issue is being discussed, rather the main topic is the American occupation,” he added.

The US embassy in Kabul said Khalilzad arrived in Kabul on Wednesday to update President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah on his engagements with regional partners and other interested parties to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan.

Khalilzad arrived in Kabul after three-days of meetings in Abu Dhabi, including the fourth round of quadrilateral meetings between the United States, Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, a statement said. 

The meetings were a part of efforts by the United States and international partners to promote an intra-Afghan dialogue aimed at ending the conflict in Afghanistan.