The UN has warned authorities that plans to demolish hundreds of homes belonging to ethnic minority Rohingya Muslims will “heighten tensions” in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where the military is accused of abusing civilians during counterinsurgency operations.
The warning came in a Dec. 28 letter obtained by IRIN and addressed to Rakhine State Chief Minister Nyi Pu. It said that more than 100 structures have already been destroyed, and the UN has “received reports that the Border Guard Police have served orders to demolish 819 buildings owned by Muslims, including 696 houses.”
The UN is also concerned about a “household survey” underway in areas where tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled military operations, according to the letter. The survey could mean that the displaced are struck from the official list of residents, leaving them unable to legally return home once the violence stops.
UN officials have confirmed the authenticity of the letter, which was signed by the UN’s senior advisor on Rakhine State, Chris Carter.
In the letter, Carter called the demolitions and the survey “provocative”.
The demolitions and survey are taking place in northern Rakhine State, where the military has been conducting “clearing operations” after a Rohingya insurgent group attacked border police posts on 9 October. Rohingya who fled over the border into Bangladesh have told journalists and rights groups that soldiers have committed widespread atrocities, including burning houses, as well as raping and killing civilians.
Demolitions are not unusual in Myanmar, where laws require the destruction of structures built without permits. But there is confusion among government officials as to why the survey and demolitions are taking place now, while the military is clashing with insurgents and about 80,000 civilians have been displaced.
“We already told them to hold their plan in this very sensitive situation,” said Zaw Htay, a spokesman for the office of President Htin Kyaw, referring to orders given to state officials. “The central government has already intervened.”
A UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IRIN the UN has received similar assurances from the central government, but structures are still being destroyed.
“We are still trying to determine whether the ongoing demolitions are just actions by rogue local officials… or a more calculated move by others,” the official said.
Tin Maung Shwe, the deputy director for Rakhine State at the central government’s powerful General Administration Department, told IRIN there has been “a misunderstanding at the grassroots level”.
“We are making inquiries,” he added.
Rohingya Muslims comprise about a third of Rakhine State’s population of just over three million, where the majority are ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. There have long been tensions between the communities, and violence in 2012 killed hundreds of people and displaced about 140,000. Almost all the victims were Rohingya, and about 100,000 still remain in camps.
Almost all Rohingya are stateless, having had their citizenship stripped by Myanmar’s former military rulers. Although Rohingya have lived in the area for hundreds of years, many in Myanmar consider them illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. They are forced to live under an apartheid system in which their movements are strictly controlled.
Rakhine State conducts the household survey on a yearly basis for the purpose of monitoring the Rohingya community. Only those on the “household lists” produced by this exercise are eligible to reside in their homes.
“It usually takes place in January in northern Rakhine, but began in November this year,” said the UN official. “It’s not happening elsewhere in Rakhine at this time, only in the three northern townships.”
The three northern townships of Rathedaung, Buthidaung and Maungdaw have been highly militarized since Oct. 9. The townships are home to most of the state’s Rohingya – and all of those displaced by the counter-insurgency operations. That means tens of thousands of people who have fled their villages could be made permanently homeless, since they can’t take part in the survey.
The decision to conduct a household survey now and destroy homes will have the effect of “heightening a state-led campaign of atrocity crimes and ethnic cleansing,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a group that has recently collected testimonies from Rohingya of atrocities committed by soldiers.
“If they aren’t on the list, they will have no choice but to flee to Bangladesh,” he told IRIN. “Giving people no option but to flee the country can be considered forced deportation.”
The UN has similar concerns. The letter refers to reports that the “names of missing people identified by the new household survey are being permanently struck from the household lists.”
More than 50,000 Rohingya have fled into neighboring Bangladesh in the past three months, according to the government there, while the UN has said another 30,000 people are internally displaced.
As many as half a million Rohingya are already living in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, having crossed the border during attacks against their communities since the 1970s.
IRIN is a private service providing humanitarian news and analysis.