Authorities in Myanmar have bulldozed at least 55 Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine, in an attempt to eradicate evidence that the army committed crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Friday (23 February).
The human rights group said that satellite images revealed the extent of the destruction, showing that at least 55 villages formerly inhabited by Rohingya Muslims have been flattened to the ground since November.
Authorities used heavy machinery to clear out all structures and vegetation in the villages, the images showed.
Rakhine state has been almost completely emptied of its Rohingya population since the military crackdown started in August, with an estimated 700,000 people having fled across the border to Bangladesh.
The UN has described Myanmar's persecution of Rohingya Muslims as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."
Earlier this month, five mass graves with dozens of corpses were unearthed in the village of Gu Dar Pyin, where authorities have been accused of ordering soldiers to gang-rape the Rohingya before burning them to death.
Myanmar's army has strongly denied allegations of mass rapes and extrajudicial killings against the Rohingya.
HRW has condemned the demolition, accusing Myanmar's security forces of erasing crucial evidence that could hold them accountable for their treatment of the Rohingya.
"Many of these villages were scenes of atrocities against Rohingya and should be preserved so that the experts appointed by the UN to document these abuses can properly evaluate the evidence to identify those responsible," said HRW's Asia director Brad Adams.
"Bulldozing these areas threatens to erase both the memory and the legal claims of the Rohingya who lived there," he said.
Phil Robertson, HRW deputy Asia director, told IBTimes UK that the bulldozing is "the final stage of the Myanmar authorities' cover-up of their crimes, pure and simple."
"These bulldozers are being deployed to eradicate the last traces of the Rohingya villages, and with that evidence of crimes against humanity committed there by the Burmese armed forces," he said.
Robertson said the current situation is similar to practices deployed by past military regimes in Myanmar, "with bogus investigations pronouncing no violations were committed and then facts on the ground altered to fit with that fiction."
"The only difference is now we have a Nobel Peace Prize winner complicit with the cover-up and serving as chief flak for the military," he said, referring to Aung San Suu Kyi's silence about the military violence against the Rohingya.