Snapshot Of The Surging Violence in Myanmar's Rakhine State

November 7, 2012

Rakhine, Myanmar
Hundreds of homes were destroyed in the city of Kyaukphyu, Rakhine state. This Digital Globe satellite image from October 25th captures the aftermath. (c) DigitalGlobe 2012

In the Rakhine state (also called “Arakan” by some) of Myanmar, the unfortunate evolution of discrimination, unequal application of the law, and forced displacement into violence and humanitarian crisis has come to bear. Since June, fits of violence between Buddhist and Muslim Rakhine, and Muslim Rohingya communities have likely left tens of thousands displaced and scores dead.

In the most recent incident of ethnic clashes, thousands of Rohingya muslim, but also Rakhine Buddhist, homes have reportedly been burned down. Part of the destruction was captured by a satellite image (courtesy of Digital Globe): The image of Kyaukphyu from October 25 shows a cindery scar on the face of the earth where hundreds of homes used to be (see the area before the destruction here).

It’s one of the most striking satellite images I have ever seen (and remarkable for an area that often provides challenges for remote sensing due to vegetation and regular cloud coverage; for more background, please take a look at a previous Myanmar project done by the American Association for the Advancement of Science). Let’s hope that this disturbing visual evidence will help to garner the necessary attention to this widely ignored human rights crisis in the making.

Getting access to the affected area through satellite becomes even more important as foreigners are generally not permitted to travel freely in Rakhine state, and despite the enormity of the crisis emerging there, local and international aid agencies do not have unfettered access to those without adequate food, water, and shelter.

What has to happen

The situation in Rakhine state remains tense. Recent news reports told of a “mob” of “several thousand” descended upon a Muslim Rakhine village. Another report talks about communities arming themselves, yet another indication of the risk of further violence. In order to address the crisis in the medium and short term, the following steps should be taken:

  • Humanitarian aid groups should be given immediate and unfettered access to the conflict impacted areas
  • A commission of inquiry (set up in August) should independently and impartially investigate the causes of violence and reports of human rights violations by all parties to the conflict.
  • Those responsible for human rights violations including Rakhine Buddhists, Rohingya Muslims and the security forces must be brought to justice
  • Myanmar authorities must address the root causes of the current violence, which is systematic discrimination. The government must end discriminatory policies and practices against Rohingya Muslims and amend or repeal its citizenship laws to ensure that the Rohingya are no longer rendered stateless. (We will monitor closely if recent public statements by authorities to address this issue will be followed through with concrete actions).

PS: If you are interested in a more detailed damage assessment, our colleagues from Human Rights Watch have conducted an analysis of the satellite image.