Fake News and Massacre Marketing in the Rohingya Crisis – PART I: Questioning the Massacre Stories

By Adam Larson

 

Editor’s Note: This series comprises the following sections, which will be published successively:
Part 1. Introduction to Questioning the Massacre Stories
Part 2: Men in Black at Kha Maung Seik: A Massacre BY Rohingya?
Part 3: Other Massacre Stories that Fall Apart (and conclusion)

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Part 1 Introduction to Questioning the Massacre Stories

1.1. Could Naypyidaw Be Right About the Crisis?

Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis gripped the world’s conscience like never before in late 2017, as the largest-yet exodus of Muslim refugees poured from northern Rakhine state into Bangladesh. An estimated 600,000 or more made the trek, most crossing in a dramatic rush from late August through September. They were fleeing villages leveled by fire and, the refugees said, leaving behind thousands of loved ones who were murdered in the government’s campaign against them. They remain there now, months later.

Repatriation discussion are underway, but many fear it’s a plan to return them for the slaughter. Suffering appalling conditions in the crowded camps, still most displaced Rohingya we hear from swear they don’t want to return to Myanmar (also known as Burma) as long as they’ll be at the mercy of the nation’s government. At least two Rohingya leaders have been shot or stabbed to death inside the camps in January. It seems extremists opposing repatriation killed these men because they were working on that, and/or putting the killers’ names on some “list” they didn’t want to be on. [1]

So even as attention fades, the crisis continues, and the underlying issues remain unsettled. In fact the true issues might remain unknown.

What we do know is hundreds of villages have burned down, as carefully mapped from space, running all down the northern Rakhine coast. We know over half a million people have fled. And we know this latest and largest crisis started early on August 25, with unprecedented attacks by the  opposition forces of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 30 security posts at once across the area. Killing several soldiers and policemen, this unexpectedly bold move  obviously sparked a government response – a “clearance operation.” As we hear it, it’s one of collective punishment against Myanmar’s Muslim community. Considering them foreign “Bengalis,” the authorities decided to suddenly and blatantly “clear” them out of Myanmar altogether, into squalid camps over the border or, when possible, into freshly-dug holes in the dirt.

A lively debate has emerged as to whether this is just ethnic cleansing or if it classes as genocide. As the allegations push Myanmar back towards the “rogue regime” category, sanctions have been placed and all forms of friendly interaction are under review.  Honors extended to hoped reformer Aung San Suu Kyi, including a Nobel Peace Prize, have been revoked or threatened for her refusal to stop the carnage or even to acknowledge it. So far a humanitarian military intervention to give the Rohingya their own nation, like a south Asian Kosovo, is not proposed, but certainly the idea has gained a big boost.

But what we don’t know about the crisis could fill volumes. There has been virtually no debate about the accuracy of the information all this concern is based on, and such a lack of skepticism has the potential to blind the world community to the true situation.

The government in Myanmar’s capitol Naypyidaw denies the refugee camp narrative entirely. With a straight face but to loud guffaws, Suu Kyi and the rest continue to deny any ethnic cleansing; they aren’t trying to chase anyone away, not burning any homes, and not bayoneting any babies. They essentially claim the Rohingya are staging a fake crisis, compelling as many as possible to rush the border, burning their own villages along the way so there’s no going back, and sowing a false narrative tying those together as parts of the government’s repression.  Their motive, apparently, is to win world sympathy and support for a separate nation of Arakan, possibly an Islamic state. The Rohingya murdering some of their own over repatriation might be part of the contingent holding out for Arakan or bust.

That narrative will seem implausible to many on the face of it. But with an issue so serious and an alleged motive so strong, it might be worth looking past the surface appearance.

Among the things most don’t know are some details from before the August 25 offensive, as related in a December report of the International Crisis Group (ICG). On May 4 “the accidental detonation of an IED during an ARSA explosives training course” killed 7 militants. In June two Rakhine Buddhists were shot dead when they stumbled upon ARSA fighters with more bomb-making material. Others escaped and alerted authorities, but the militants fled with their materials. In August there was a small open clash, another deadly IED accident, and 8 Rakhine villagers executed in a murky incident. Then, as the report explains:

“ARSA initiated the attacks via a WhatsApp audio message delivered shortly after 8pm on 24 August. It instructed cell leaders to mobilise all male villagers over the age of fifteen, assemble in pre-planned locations with whatever sharp objects were available and attack designated targets. … Many untrained villagers were provided with IEDs for use in the attacks.” [2]

To manage that huge offensive on some 30 security posts at once, the hitherto small ARSA movement would try to be unexpectedly strong. The August 24 mobilization order cited above was to all men above 14. Even if just half of them heeded it, that could be a massive new recruitment at the last moment, bucking all prior estimates of the group’s strength.

They might also have teamed up with other groups to boost their power, but this isn’t proven. CNN heard from expert Phill Hynes, estimating that, last he heard, “up to 150 foreign fighters were involved in the ARSA movement”. [3] That’s not a very large number, but a moderate portion of a small movement. ARSA denies foreign help and publicly rejects offers by Al Qaeda, Islamic State and others to send fighters. [4] But this may be simple branding for the “Faith Movement” born in radical Islamist  tradition, with members from as far afield as Uzbekistan, [5] and working with Pakistani fighters at least; ICG reports that a Pakistani explosives expert and 2 other “foreigners” were among the 7 killed in the May 4 IED mishap. [6] Some observers suggest Pakistani and Saudi intelligence links behind ARSA, or at least recruitment links to these countries, based on their supreme leader “Ata Ullah” having roots in both places. [7]

In fact it’s possible ARSA may be so strenuous in their denials because foreign Islamists were already working inside Myanmar. A huge offensive like in August would be the time to use them. Some details in part 2 of this article support foreigners were involved, with one allegedly co-heading a force reported  as at least 300 fighters strong attacking the Hindu villages of the Kha Maung Seik area.

So the network behind ARSA expanded and put its new weight behind some plan on August 25, with some reason and some motive. And the proposed motive  – Arakan, as the “Rohingya salvation” – is pretty compelling.  The claims from Naypyidaw make a bit of sense in that light. Also consider how it seems the ARSA offensive “backfired” massively by triggering the genocide campaign. But if creating that image was the whole idea, then the offensive succeeded quite well, sowing a believable reason for the government to do whatever comes next. So we might wonder if Ata Ullah really miscalculated or if Naypyidaw is at least partly right about the crisis.

Authorities also accuse the “Bengali terrorists” of killing security forces and civilians of other faiths or politics. Such violence would be counter-productive if they were caught, complicating their picture. So it’s worth wondering why they might plunge ahead.

  • They would attack army bases and police stations mainly as provocation for the crackdown their story needed, but also maybe because they needed to seize more weapons, or to disrupt security so they could freely engage in some criminal activity. We know they attacked these places, but it’s not certain why.
  • Maybe they would attack civilians to rob some people, to have more burned areas to be seen from space and describe as Rohingya, to get some bodies to describe as Rohingya to prove their massacre claims, or to secure some non-Muslim refugees to press into parroting their narrative (evidence for each of these motives appears throughout the parts of this article).

We, the global public, don’t know or agree on such attacks happening. But these are examples to show how there might be adequate reason for both lines of action alleged – basically oppressing others while faking repression against themselves.

After the offensive began, the ICG report explains at least three non-Muslim (Buddhist) villages were attacked and burned. Two of these came after and one before “Ata Ullah issued WhatsApp audio messages instructing his followers to burn down Rakhine Buddhist villages with Molotov cocktails” in revenge, on August 28 – a reversal of prior public statements. Two Hindu villages were also reported burned, but stood as unconfirmed by ICG. [8] Part 2 explains how likely one of those Hindu village attacks was. Other such incidents are possible, but may have gone ignored or even laundered as attacks on Rohingya, especially regarding non-Muslim areas in mixed villages, as opposed to strictly non-Muslim villages (see part 3, section 3.4 for a specific possibility).

Conversely, many Rohingya villages didn’t burn and weren’t emptied, and despite the mass exodus, a majority of Rakhine state’s Muslim still live there. CNN credits estimates of 60% of their villages as not empty, with most of those still full (some witnessed a partial flight). This may include the many villages with mixed populations, but not likely better-secured towns and cities, like Sittwe and Maungdaw, where nearly all the Rohingya likely stayed put. [9] That means most of their towns and homes were spared from the “ethnic cleansing.” Or perhaps it’s truer to say most Rohingya refused the calls to participate in the crisis performance.

Let’s consider this in the latter sense. That would mean in such places few citizens if any ran off to the border to play refugee.  Few if any were murdered, and any fires they set were contained. The village chief will have urged calm, may have reported some troublemakers, and will likely be called a government collaborator. He might even be killed by ARSA types for treason against their Arakan jihad.

Just such a story unfolded in Du Nyaung Pin Gyee outside Maungdaw, at least as reported by The Irrawaddy, a pro-government newspaper. By this, some locals did leave but most chose not to, and they were never attacked by anyone. Village headsman Shaw Feik Amen had urged calm and unity, which held through the immediate crisis and all autumn. But some locals in Du Nyaung Pin Gyee told reporters they “had been warned by an unidentified group – believed to be ARSA members or supporters – to leave the village or they would be killed in the next round of attacks.” Headsman Amen held out until the night of December 5, when witnesses say armed men, probably Muslims from the same village, broke into his home and murdered him. A school teacher said Amen was killed on suspicion of “collaborating with the government.” Swords were involved. [10]

(note: The executions of local Muslims accused of working with or supporting the government – including by beheading – are not new, and were reported at least a year earlier, in December 2016. [11] Those are associated with that year’s Rohingya crisis, likewise sparked by deadly attacks on security posts that ARSA launched in October, to announce its formation out of the previous “Faith Movement.” [12])

So the crisis might be optional; areas where Islamists held sway would tend to be “wiped out,” while places where moderation prevails would remain calm, but sometimes at a high cost.

Besides the torched tracts and waves of refugees, bloody massacre stories fraught with cruelty would really help paint the desired picture. Such stories – which don’t need to be true – have been used to great effect in the past. Wherever Sunni Islamists have come into conflict with any type of government or grouping of infidels – Shi’ite or Alawite, secular, nationalist, weak Sunni, atheist, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, it doesn’t matter – apparently satanic hatred is hurled through these disposable enemies against the blameless Sunnis, often at just the right moment to rile them up for jihad, win them support from the world community, or whatever else works best.

As it happens, the Rohingya refugees report several such crimes committed across Rakhine state by Myanmar’s military, usually with the assistance of local Rakhine Buddhist vigilantes. In the leading story  analyzed in section 3.2, alleged witnesses say several hundred to as many as 1,800 innocent Muslim civilians were killed in the village of Tula Toli alone on August 30. [13] As told, some 2,000 innocent locals were herded to the beach by soldiers and armed Rakhine Buddhist villagers. First, hundreds of men were gunned down and slaughtered with swords before their horrified wives and children. Those women were then taken into huts, and forced to watch their children murdered. Then the killers gang-raped them, beat or hacked them to death, and set the huts on fire. [14] They even say Buddhist monks were directly involved. [15] One woman herself swears she counted at least 300 children and 200 women killed, before she played dead and fled one of those burning huts. [16]

According to the news, we completely believe this kind of story.

There are some genuine issues to address – a larger context of Rohingya/Bengali history, racism, disputed violence, and a long back-and-forth over the causes. But with the current escalation we’ve already passed another set of questions without really considering them. Are we really where these refugees say, with this arguably ridiculous savagery hurled at them by yet another repressive regime?  Is their word really a clear enough basis to decide how to resolve the crisis? Let’s consider this question as we turn to the specifics of some crimes attributed to the government’s denied ethnic cleansing campaign.

1.2. Inn Din Precedents: a Massacre Admitted, False Stories Anyway

As They told a different story from the people in the camps, and supposedly refused access to reporters and journalists, a government cover-up was evident to many from the start. A case in point is the December 12 arrest of two  journalists (Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, Burmese citizens working for Reuters) and some policemen who were giving them unauthorized information. For violating state secret laws, they all faced sentences as long as 14 years as prison. [17] Whatever they were looking into, it would seem like something the government wanted hushed-up.

An unusual government announcement of Dec. 18 noted unidentified “people being killed and buried” in a cemetery at Inn Din, on the coast a little north of Sittwe. (see map). [18] A New York Times report of December 19 says the detained journalists had obtained photos from here, and along with them, “five ethnic Rakine locals were arrested for supplying the photos” – that should be the policemen. [19] What seems to be a photo of one of the photos was shown Dec. 20 on Twitter by a pro-Rohingya activist. It shows 10 fighting-age Men bound and kneeling, as other armed men stand behind them with labels added but unreadable. [20]

How or if that all fit together was unclear and remains debatable, but we may now have the true story. At the risk of setting a precedent, the military now admits its forces engaged in unlawful killings in Inn Din – but not on orders. According to a January 10 statement of the army chief of staff’s Facebook page, hot-headed soldiers and/or Rakhine locals decided on their own to execute 10 ARSA fighters (“Bengali terrorists”) they had captured after a foiled attack on August 31. Upset over attacks and the recent murder of a Rakhine man, and dealing with an extreme situation they perhaps weren’t trained to deal with, or because they were genocidal racists, depending … they executed the captives on September 2, and then buried their bodies in a Buddhist cemetery near Inn Din.  [21]

Radio Free Asia reported on the statement in more detail, giving some alleged background. On August 25 the ARSA men kidnapped and killed a Rakhine farmer named Maung Ni, and later broadcast messaged from their mosque loudspeakers “about slashing the throats of Myanmar soldiers and occupying the region.”  200 ARSA fighters attacked security forces on the 31st, but they were chased away except the ten they managed to capture.  “Although the soldiers should have handed over the 10 men to police,” the report rightly notes, they took them to the cemetery, and brought in villagers including Maung Ni’s sons. The condemned men “were ordered to get into a pit in a ravine between two hillocks. An ethnic Rakhine villager cut them with a sword and four soldiers shot them, the statement said.” [22]

So it’s fairly well established that in one instance at least Rakhines and/or security forces did execute ten Rohingya men, and even did it in a brutal and grisly manner. Some see this as a crack in facade of the government’s denail, if not a precedent for more admissions. Mubassir.com quoted Amnesty International’s regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, James Gomez,  calling this “grisly admission” just “the tip of the iceberg” of “atrocities were committed amid the ethnic cleansing campaign.” Gomez called for an independent investigation. [23]

But it could also be seen as a sign of genuine transparency. Note that after the killings, it seems likely the Rakhine police tried to admit to it through the media, but were stopped by the government with the December 12 arrests. But then the government went ahead and told the world the truth – or at least a story that doesn’t blame the Rohingya for everything. It vows to punish the criminals who broke their rules of engagement with those killings, and they likely will. Aung San Suu Kyi called the admission and moves to prosecute the killers “a positive indication that we are taking the steps to be responsible.” [24] They also might now free the journalists who were jailed, it seems, for trying to report what they now admit, though this hasn’t happened yet.

But alleged witnesses insist Naypyidaw lies, having repeatedly sworn those killed at Inn Din were not fighters but innocent civilians. Repetition across sources might sound convincing, but they’ve argued this with clashing stories that shift over time. [25]

First Amnesty International heard in October that men, primarily if not totally, were shot randomly as they ran from their burning homes. The bodies were left behind, buried individually by family in some kind of cemetery. [26] Then as photos of bound captives emerged in December, survivors said the ten men were arrested while camping on the beach, killed and buried in secret, presumably by their killers.  [27] Now we hear the men were “slaughtered” after showing up for a “meeting” the army and Buddhists had asked for, and were  dumped in a single grave in the Buddhist cemetery, as we understand the locale – not a place Rohingya Muslims would be likely to bury their kin, as told to AI. [28]

This chain of contradictions is something AI’s regional director James Gomez might want to look into – an evolving story that adapts to shifting public knowledge is a sign of repeated falsification. This same impression easily emerges in some other cases considered in parts 2 and 3. Furthermore, all these stories still leave the victims of the Inn Din massacre sounding just as likely to be fighters as they appear in that photo – mostly aged 20-35, with incomplete names, and all this apparent falsehood concealing something about them.

The government’s version has no such story contradictions, and seems the most likely explanation yet offered. But it’s not likely to be a precedent for more admissions. There may be another smaller massacre or even two of this sort they’ll acknowledge, but so far only this one has bodies found, Rakhines apparently trying to admit to it and providing photos, and a story we now hear that has a certain plausibility.  This may be the entire “iceberg” rather than the tip of it.

Other alleged massacres are of a vastly different character and scale, with scores or hundreds of civilians, even babies, killed with utmost cruelty and for no reasons. So these are also lacking in evidence like bodies found. These Myanmar will probably continue to deny, and perhaps they would be right to do so. The claims are quite extreme. Perhaps thousands of men, women and children, the elderly and feeble, anyone they could get their hands on, was killed with guns and swords and the horrors described above. The character of the accusations alone  should raise some red flags that these incidents are possibly exaggerated, or worse. But despite the lack of questions, we already have some answers.

  • Several points have been identified, at least as clearly as with Inn Din, where it’s hard to deny at least some of the lodged stories must be untrue. In fact the attempts at spinning events are often comically inept.
  • Enough evidence has arisen to say ARSA implicated in genocidal massacres even more clearly than the armed forces of Myanmar or any Buddhist mob is. In fact, one of the most prominent alleged massacres against Rohingya might be fabricated to conceal ARSA’s killing of some 93 Hindu civilians.

While the truth can’t be fully known yet, the narrative coming from Naypyidaw remains disturbingly possible, and however crazy it sounded on the first pass, the reality just might be upside-down from what we’ve been led to believe.

References

  1. https://coconuts.co/yangon/news/two-rohingya-leaders-killed-bangladesh-refugee-camp/
  2. “Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase” International Crisis Group. Report #292 / Asia 7 December 2017 https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east-asia/myanmar/292-myanmars-rohingya-crisis-enters-dangerous-new-phase
  3. http://www.cnn.com/2018/01/10/asia/myanmar-rohingya-militants-arsa-intl/index.html
    “Ambush could mark new phase for Rohingya insurgency” By Katie Hunt, CNN, Video by Rebecca Wright, Updated 1:21 AM ET, Thu January 11, 2018
  4. “ARSA group denies links with al-Qaeda, ISIL and others” by Faisal Edroos, Al-Jazeera (English), 14 Sept 2017 http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/09/arsa-group-denies-links-al-qaeda-isil-170914094048024.html
  5. http://www.atimes.com/article/truth-behind-myanmars-rohingya-insurgency/ “The truth behind Myanmar’s Rohingya insurgency: While the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army claims to be fighting an ethno-nationalist struggle, its leaders and extremist group links point towards a wider regional agenda” By Bertil Lintner. Yangon. Asia Times. September 20, 2017 4:46 PM (UTC+8)
  6. see 2.
  7. http://shankhnaad.net/home/national-security/item/510-rohingya-conspiracy-saudi-pakistan
  8. See 2
  9. “Myanmar government: Almost 40% of Rohingya villages are now empty” By Jamie Tarabay, CNN. Updated 10:17 AM ET, Thu September 14, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/14/asia/myanmar-rohingya-empty-villages/index.html (implied: 60% are not empty: a few others were partly empty, and most others still full)
  10. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/muslim-village-head-killed-rakhines-maungdaw-district.html December 5, 2017
  11. www.rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/third-muslim-man-found-dead-in-myanmars-maungdaw-12292016154551.html Third Muslim Man Found Dead in Myanmar’s Maungdaw Radio Free Asia. 2016-12-29
  12. See 2.
  13. 9. http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Tula_Toli_Massacre#Death_Toll
  14. “Massacre by the River Burmese Army Crimes against Humanity in Tula Toli.” Human Rights Watch, December 19, 2017 https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/12/19/massacre-river/burmese-army-crimes-against-humanity-tula-toli
  15. 2 witnesses claiming monks were involved: http://www.smh.com.au/interactive/2017/Rohingya-crisis-lives-in-limbo/
  16. http://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2017/09/09/no-rohingya-left-tulatoli/
  17. http://www.dw.com/en/two-reuters-journalists-arrested-in-myanmar/a-41779486
  18. https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-myanmar-rohingya-grave/myanmar-military-says-investigating-mass-grave-in-rakhine-state-idUKKBN1EC1ZI?rpc=401&
  19. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/19/world/asia/myanmar-reuters-grave.html
  20. https://twitter.com/nslwin/status/94341781908087603220. www.rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/myanmar-military-releases-details-about-killing-of-Rohingya-villagers-01112018160206.html
  21. www.rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/myanmar-military-releases-details-about-killing-of-Rohingya-villagers-01112018160206.html
  22. https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2018/01/10/Myanmar-admits-to-killing-10-Rohingya-found-in-mass-grave/1481515632974/
  23. www.mubassir.com/english/world/12-01-2018/news34850.html#.WmDEYkxFxjo
  24. AFP. Jan. 12 https://nz.news.yahoo.com/myanmar-army-apos-admission-killings-053406784.html
  25. http://libyancivilwar.blogspot.com/2018/01/an-admission-at-inn-din-precedent-for.html
  26. ““MY WORLD IS FINISHED”: ROHINGYA TARGETED IN CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY IN MYANMAR.” Amnesty International. 18 October 2017, Index number: ASA 16/7288/2017 https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa16/7288/2017/en/ pp. 18-19
  27. Villagers assure the dead in Inn Din graves are Rohingyas. Rohingya Blogger, December 19, 2017 www.rohingyablogger.com/2017/12/villagers-assure-dead-in-inn-din-graves.html
  28. “Survivors say victims of Inn Din village killings civilians, not fighters” By Sam Jaham | AFP via Frontier Myanmar https://frontiermyanmar.net/en/survivors-say-victims-of-inn-din-village-killings-civilians-not-fighters

 

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The author

Adam Larson is an independent investigator in Spokane, Washington, United States. He studied history at Eastern Washington University. He has since 2011, on a volunteer basis, studied events in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine following Western-backed regime-change operations, often under the screen name Caustic Logic. Using open sources, with an emphasis on video analysis, Mr. Larson and research associates have often deconstructed or disproved alleged “regime” crimes from shooting protesters to sectarian massacres. He’s the co-founder of Citizen’s Investigation into War crimes in Libya (and Syria, Ukraine, and beyond – CIWCL-SUB – website), a core member of the wiki-format research site A Closer Look On Syria, and runs the site Monitor on Massacre Marketing. He can be contacted at adam@ciwclibya.org.