Human Rights Watch (HRW), a leading international rights group, on Monday, accused authorities in Myanmar, including Buddhist monks, of fomenting an organised campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority that killed hundreds of people and forced 125,000 from their homes.

While state security forces sometimes intervened to protect fleeing Muslims, more often they fuelled the unrest, the rights group said, either by standing by idle or directly participating in atrocities.The allegations, detailed in a new report, came the same day the European Union (EU) was expected to lift all sanctions on Myanmar, except an arms embargo, to reward it for its progress towards democratic rule.

Win Myaing, a government spokesman for Rakhine State, strongly rejected the allegations against state security forces, saying Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigators “don’t understand the situation on the ground”.

Rakhine State was shaken twice by anti-Muslim violence, first in June, then again in October. In March, unrest spread for the first time to central Myanmar, where dozens of people were killed in the city of Meikhtila.

BBC footage

Also on Monday, the British Broadcasting Corp. aired dramatic video footage showing police in Meikhtila standing by as looting, arson and multiple attacks against Muslims were underway.

One scene showed a charred man, thought to be Muslim, lying prostrate on the ground, badly burned but apparently still alive. As one person said, “Let him die, no water for him,” several police walked past. Another scene showed a young Muslim man who had tried to flee being forced out of a thicket of green reeds and beaten by an angry crowd that included a Buddhist monk who was armed with a stick. The BBC said much of the footage was filmed by police.

In western Myanmar, the crisis goes back decades and is rooted in a highly controversial dispute over where the region’s Muslim inhabitants are really from. Although many Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are widely denigrated by majority Buddhists as foreign intruders who came from neighbouring Bangladesh to steal scarce land.

The U.N. estimates their number at 800,000. The government does not count them as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, and like Bangladesh denies them citizenship.

The report detailed how officials from the powerful Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, as well as Buddhist monks, publically vilified the Rohingya after the June riots. They encouraged segregation, the boycott of Muslim businesses, and described the Rohingyas living among them as a threat to the state.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights watch, said Myanmar’s “government engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement”.

“The government needs to put an immediate stop to the abuses and hold the perpetrators accountable or it will be responsible for further violence,” he said.