A leading international rights group has accused authorities in Burma, 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.
Human Rights Watch also described the bloody wave of violence and massacres in western Rakhine state last year as crimes against humanity, and slammed the government of President Thein Sein for failing to bring the perpetrators to justice months after mobs of Buddhists armed with machetes and homemade guns razed thousands of Muslim 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. One soldier reportedly told a Muslim man whose village was ablaze: "The only thing you can do is pray to save your lives."
The allegations, detailed in a new report by the New York-based rights group, came the same day the European Union was expected to lift all sanctions on Myanmar except an arms embargo to reward the Southeast Asian nation for its progress toward democratic rule.
Win Myaing, a government spokesman for Rakhine state, strongly rejected the allegations against state security forces, saying Human Rights Watch investigators "don't understand the situation on the ground." He said there the government had no prior knowledge of impending attacks and deployed forces to stop the unrest.
"We don't want unrest in the country because such incidents stall the democratic process and affect development," he said.
The spread of sectarian violence has posed one of the greatest challenges yet to Thein Sein's nascent government as it takes unprecedented steps to liberalise the country after almost half a century of military dictatorship. 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.
Today the BBC aired dramatic video footage showing police in Meikhtila standing by as looting, arson and multiple attacks against Muslims took place. 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 Burma, 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 Burma for generations, they are widely denigrated by majority Buddhists as foreign intruders who came from neighbouring Bangladesh to steal scarce land.
The UN 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.