Bulldozing the truth in Myanmar

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A Rohingya girl grieves outside of a UNHCR tent in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo

Western condemnation of Myanmar’s military campaign against Rohingya Muslims – as well as less noticed offensives in northern Kachin and Shan states – was at high volume this week at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

On Monday, the UN’s Fact Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar presented its interim oral report to the council, citing overwhelming evidence of crimes against humanity perpetrated by Myanmar security forces that have driven an estimated 700,000 Rohingya from Rakhine state into Bangladesh.

The FFM’s chair, former Indonesian Attorney General Marzuki Darusman said, “We have seen unsettling photographs and satellite images of Rohingya villages flattened to the ground by bulldozers, erasing all remaining traces of the life and community that once was, not to mention destroying possible crime scene evidence.”

He added: “Any denial of the seriousness of the situation in Rakhine, the reported human rights violations, and the suffering of the victims is untenable.”

The government has refused access to the three-member FFM and their team of UN investigators, compelling them to collect evidence in Bangladesh and Thailand instead.

The UN Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has been similarly barred from visiting the country since last December when the government said it would no longer cooperate with her.

Lee released her highly detailed report to the council days ago, echoing the FFM’s assessment on the scale of the violence and lack of accountability.

REFILE - CORRECTING TITLE Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee (R) gives her report next to the Chairperson of the Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar Marzuki Darusman, during the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

UN Special Rapporteur in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee (R), and Chairperson of the Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar Marzuki Darusman, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, March 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

She proposed the formation of a three-year long office to be based in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh to gather evidence, and for the UN system also to be investigated for its role in the crisis.

Citing concerns over the rise of fighting in Kachin, Shan and Karen states, the collapse of the nationwide peace process and government intimidation of civil society, she said “the repressive practices of previous military governments were returning as the norm once more.”

A report by Amnesty International released on the same day the FFM and Yanghee Lee presented in Geneva outlined in graphic detail the use of bulldozers to erase evacuated villages in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township and to construct what the group called ‘military bases’ on the cleared land.

The use of earthmovers to erase traces of villages and construct resettlement sites or security facilities also reeks of the sanitizing of all traces of violence.

Just days before, Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) released a mortality survey report that estimates between August 25 and September 24 last year, 9,400 people were killed in the military’s “clearance” operations, with an estimated 6,700 dying from violence.

(COMBO) This handout combination image of two satellite photographs released by Amnesty International and DigitalGlobe on March 12, 2018 shows before and after images taken on September 6, 2017 and February 5, 2018 of new structures and helipads being built over agricultural fields in the village of Pa Da Kar Ywar Thit in Myanmar's Rakhine State.Myanmar is building security installations on top of razed Rohingya villages, Amnesty International said March 12, 2018, casting doubt on the country's plans to repatriate hundreds of thousands of refugees. MANDATORY CREDIT: AFP PHOTO / AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL / DIGITALGLOBE / AFP PHOTO / Amnesty International / DigitalGlobe / Handout / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL / DIGITALGLOBE" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS == NO ARCHIVE

Two satellite photographs released by Amnesty International and DigitalGlobe on March 12, 2018 shows before and after images taken on September 6, 2017 and February 5, 2018 of new structures and helipads being built over agricultural fields in the village of Pa Da Kar Ywar Thit in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Photo: AFP/Amnesty International/DigitalGlobe 

The government’s dismissal of all these reports are as chillingly inept as they are ruthlessly obtuse. According to state mouthpiece media, there is a flurry of building activity in Rakhine state, with new roads, electricity projects and Japan-funded school construction.

State media also regularly touts the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development’s (UEHRD) public private partnership activities and the deployment of a new batch of national ‘youth volunteers’ to distribute aid to all Rakhine’s communities.

What this official narrative studiously ignores is the military campaign that drove 700,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh, or any acknowledgement of the scale or systematic nature of the crimes documented, apart from the grudging admission that some troops were involved in a massacre uncovered by Reuters news service.

That admission, however, has not resulted in the dropping of charges against the two Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo now detained under the Official Secrets Act, which allows for 14-year prison sentences. Details of the police set-up operation that led to their arrests revealed in court proceedings has made a mockery of the trumped-up charges.

A Myanmar government team present in Geneva gave their version of events, consistent with months of thoroughly unconvincing official rebuttals of the Rakhine revelations.

The delegation, led by UEHRD chief Aung Tun Thet, National Security Advisor and Union Minister Thaung Tun and Myanmar Permanent Representative to the UN Htin Lynn and a clutch of MPs, countered the criticism by staging an event called “Understanding Myanmar: Efforts for Reconciliation and Peace.”

(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 9, 2017 Rohingya refugees walk after crossing the Naf river from Myanmar into Bangladesh in Whaikhyang.Myanmar is continuing its "ethnic cleansing" of the Rohingya with a "campaign of terror and forced starvation" in Rakhine state, a UN human rights envoy said on March 6, 2018, six months after a military crackdown sparked a mass exodus of the Muslim minority. / AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR

Rohingya refugees walk after crossing the Naf river from Myanmar into Bangladesh in Whaikhyang in an October 9, 2017 file photo. Photo: AFP/Fred Dufour

The presentation said: “With regard to Rakhine, it is only natural that there will be critics and doubting Thomases (sic)…our efforts to bring peace and development were on track until August 2017, when violence was triggered by the attacks on security forces by terrorists.

“Regrettably, the attacks and the subsequent mass displacement of people changed the situation and negatively affected the perception and attitude of the international community on the situation in Myanmar.

“We take the allegations of human rights violations seriously and will take action against offenders whenever there is clear evidence. Far from being indifferent to the situation, we care deeply for all people affected, including those who have fled to Bangladesh, due to recent incidents in Rakhine.”

These airy, if not spurious, sentiments are deeply rooted in an official culture of denial, and cannot be given any credibility while authorities continue to restrict access to the sites of violence to UN investigators, the media, and long promised but not delivered international humanitarian aid experts.

It’s especially hard to take seriously the government’s commitments to reconstruction in Rakhine when in reality they are bulldozing areas in operations that are more clearly meant to destroy evidence of rights abuses than rehabilitate violence-affected communities. The official narrative is that this is being done to prepare for Rohingya repatriation, but its more clearly akin to Area 51 for military atrocity crimes.

UN rights experts also called out the role social media has played in spreading violent hate speech against the Rohingya and Muslims in general, and the government’s reliance on Facebook to pour scorn on allegations of widespread official abuses against ethnic and religious minorities.

A woman wears stickers with the image of Myanmar's State Counselor Aung Sann Suu Kyi on her cheeks as she attends a broadcast of the live speech of Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in front of City Hall in Yangon on September 19, 2017. Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi reached out to the global community on September 19 in a broad appeal for support over a refugee crisis the UN has decried as "ethnic cleansing", urging outsiders to help her nation unite across religious and ethnic lines and offering a pathway back to the country for some of the Rohingya Muslims forced to flee by army operations. / AFP PHOTO / AUNG Kyaw Htet

A woman wears stickers with the image of Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on September 19, 2017. Photo: AFP/Aung Kyaw Htet

Marzuki told reporters in Geneva that Facebook in particular has “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict, if you will, within the public. (In) Myanmar…social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media.” Yanghee Lee, meanwhile, deplored Facebook simply as a “beast.”

The sudden deluge of technology and unfiltered information on a country that had been isolated from almost anything but crude state propaganda has collided with the post-2012 communal violence in Rakhine, growing Buddhist ultra-nationalism and rising Islamophobia.

Much of the hate speech on Facebook has been directed at the Rohingya as an existential threat to the nation’s Buddhist majority, turning the social media platform into a zombie virus of Myanmar’s democratic transition after decades of stifling military misrule.

Twitter is less used in Myanmar, and then mostly among Western analysts, Rohingya activists, journalists, aid workers and even pro-Myanmar military bots. The media savvy Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgent group also uses the platform to release its recent proliferation of public statements and threats of retaliation.

But Twitter has also been implicated in the spreading of fake photos, news and video footage of the Rakhine crisis, including by wayward rights campaigners and in one notorious case the deputy foreign minister of Turkey.

Much of the hate speech on Facebook has been directed at the Rohingya as an existential threat to the nation’s Buddhist majority, turning the social media platform into a zombie virus of Myanmar’s democratic transition after decades of stifling military misrule

A recently released study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published in Science magazine on Twitter’s role in spreading false information claims that fake news reports are 70% more likely to be retweeted than true ones.

Still, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s claim that there is an “iceberg of misinformation” over the Rakhine crisis was an unconvincing attempt at diverting attention from the scale of the refugee crisis and widespread reports of gross rights abuses.

But inside Myanmar the perception that so many Western reporting mistakes go uncorrected is fueling the rise of xenophobic nationalism, or at least growing animus towards the West in general and the UN in particular.

Meanwhile, the government’s actions to deny the ferocity and scale of the Rakhine crisis is being waged on the ground with bulldozers, at the UN in stage-managed presentations of denial, and on the hate-filled pages of Facebook and other social media that keeps the Myanmar public misinformed.

David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst

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