As the United Nations focuses on the details of how over 600,000 Rohingya are to be returned to Myanmar from refugee camps in Bangladesh, the government of Myanmar is rapidly destroying all evidence of a rapidly unfolding genocide.
Myanmar has bulldozed at least 55 villages that were emptied of their Rohingya Muslim inhabitants during violence that began previous year, Human Rights Watch said on Friday citing a review of new satellite imagery. The operation has also horrified the Rohingya, who believe the government is intentionally eviscerating the dwindling remnants of their culture to make it almost impossible for them to return.
The group said it could not independently verify if any of the destroyed villages were inhabited when the demolition began, though the imagery suggests that the demolitions are ongoing.
Richard Weir, a Myanmar expert with Human Rights Watch, said: "There's no more landmarks, there's no trees, there's no vegetation".
The satellite images from DigitalGlobe shows at least 28 villages have been flattened by bulldozers and other machinery in a 50 km radius around Maungdaw between December and February.
The operation not only "threatens to erase both the memory and the legal claims of the Rohingya who lived there", he said.
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At the time Myanmar's Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye said the demolition was part of a plan to "build back" villages to a higher standard than before.
The UN has described Myanmar's persecution of Rohingya Muslims as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing". The recent report by UNICEF read that recognizing the basic rights of the Rohingya people would create the necessary conditions for the return of the refugees to their homes in Myanmar. As satellite photographs show, a return home might be simply impossible.
Myanmar's Buddhist majority supports its military's actions against the Rohingya minority.
Human-rights groups say authorities are eliminating crucial evidence of the mass atrocities carried out against the ethnic Rohingya minority. Myanmar bars independent media access to Rakhine state.
There is widespread prejudice against the Rohingya because they are seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although they are long-time settlers. The HRW has also said that these settlements should be preserved as "crime scenes". According to charity Médecins Sans Frontières, 7,000 Rohingya were killed in one month, 730 of whom were children. "There's been no credible investigation of these crimes".
The call came after Myanmar authorities on Thursday released activist Khaing Myo Htun after he served 18 months in prison for alleging that the Myanmar Army used forced labour and tortured civilians. A 2013 report on Myanmar by the McKinsey Global Institute, estimated that tourism could contribute $14.1 billion to Myanmar's economy by 2030 and employ around 2.3 million people.