Myanmar’s government said Monday it would take action against police officers who were shown in a video beating villagers in western Rakhine state, where tens of thousands of minority Muslims are fleeing a harsh military crackdown.
The statement was a rare official acknowledgment of abuses in Rakhine, home to a large Muslim population known as the Rohingya, who have long suffered persecution at the hands of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority.
The Rohingya have been the main targets of a military operation that began in October after suspected Islamist militants overran several border posts and killed nine officers.
About 50,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh over the last three months, the Bangladeshi government says. Human rights groups have accused Myanmar forces of systematically torching Rohingya villages and raping and killing civilians.
The government has denied responsibility for the violence, accusing villagers of setting the fires and fabricating stories of abuse. Aid groups and journalists have been effectively barred from the area since October.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who leads Myanmar’s government, has remained silent on the Rohingya despite growing international pressure over their plight.
The video that emerged over the weekend was harder for officials to play down.
Widely circulated on social media and picked up by local broadcasters, the minute-long clip shows dozens of male villagers seated on the ground with their hands behind their heads.
Uniformed police officers are seen beating and kicking two men repeatedly in the footage, which was captured on a cellphone by a helmeted policeman smoking a cigarette.
Suu Kyi’s office said the video was taken Nov. 5 in Kotankauk, a hamlet where villagers had staged a demonstration during a visit to the area by foreign diplomats. Rohingya activists said that police retaliated by detaining all males older than 8 for two days.
“Action will be taken against police who allegedly beat villagers,” Suu Kyi’s office said in a statement, identifying four officers by name.
The government said police were acting on information that villagers in Kotankauk were sheltering gunmen who had attacked police outposts 20 miles away two days earlier. Activist groups were skeptical, saying it would have been nearly impossible for Rohingya, whose movement is severely restricted, to travel such a distance given the heavy security presence in the state.
Human rights groups have presented evidence of crackdowns against demonstrators in the past, only to have Myanmar’s government issue blanket denials, said Matthew Smith, chief executive of Fortify Rights, an advocacy group in Southeast Asia.
“It’s significant the government acknowledged the video, but it remains to be seen what will come of it,” he said. “Impunity still reigns supreme in Rakhine state.”
“The government should respond with the same urgency to evidence of rape, killings, and other abuses. Instead we’re still hearing consistent denials.”
The roughly 1 million Rohingya Muslims are widely described as the world’s most persecuted minority. Myanmar denies them citizenship and other basic rights, claiming they are interlopers from Bangladesh, despite many Rohingya families having lived in the country for generations.
In state-sponsored pogroms in 2012, Buddhist mobs attacked Rohingya villages, killing hundreds and forcing 125,000 people to flee their homes. Thousands escaped to refugee camps in Bangladesh or set off on dangerous boat trips toward Southeast Asia or Europe.
But many Rohingya are growing increasingly desperate as global migration routes narrow and Suu Kyi’s government shows little sign of ending their isolation.
A report by the International Crisis Group last month said a new Islamist insurgent group, financed by Rohingya emigres in Saudi Arabia, was responsible for the Oct. 9 attack against the Myanmar border posts. The prospect of a foreign-backed militancy has raised fears of further attacks — and military reprisals.
“An increasing sense of despair has driven more people to consider a violent response, but it is not too late for the government to reverse the trend,” the group wrote.
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