“Muslim houses were easy to burn because of the thatched roofs. You just light the edge of the roof,” said a Buddhist villager, claiming they used monks’ robes on the ends of sticks, soaked in kerosene, to make impromptu torches.
The investigation by the two Reuters journalists in Burma/Myanmar is significant for several reasons, beyond the many investigations that have been already been conducted, shining lights on the myriad of human rights abuses throughout Burma. Most of the investigative journalism comes out of the refugee camps in Bangladesh, where almost 690,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled for their lives. However, this most recent investigation uncovered the summary execution of 10 Rohingya men and their burial in a mass grave — all corroborated by the Rohingya refugees and family members, local Buddhist villagers, and even the Burmese soldiers involved in the killings. This kind of due-diligence caused even the Burmese government to admit the existence of the mass grave, something they rarely do.
To understand why the Buddhist villagers were involved, it is important to understand a brief history of their involvement and proximity to the Rohingya Muslims. The massacre happened in the village of Inn Din, a place in Rakhine State where Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists live side-by-side. They are certainly distinct from one another, and many call the Rohingya “Bengalis,” referring to the migration of the Rohingya into Burma just after WWII. Because of this migration by their ancestors, many consider them not to be Burmese at all — even the government. This is despite the fact that, unless they are of WWII age, they likely were born and grew up in Burma, just as their parents did.
As tensions raised and Rohingya insurgents attacked several Burmese police outposts, the tide changed when the Burmese government went on all all out offensive against anyone Rohingya, insurgent, civilian or anywhere in between. This offensive cost the lives of 1,200 Rohingya children under the age of 5 in the first month, according to a report by Doctors Without Borders.
Tensions within Inn Din were rising along with everywhere else in Rakhine state, and the divide between the Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists began to grow. In late August, 80 soldiers went down to the village and recruited sympathetic Buddhist villagers. They went to the homes of the Rohingya Muslims and, together, burned them down. Reuters talked to several of these people, and one even reported the sounds of a child inside one of the homes as it burned.
This of course drove the Rohingya out of Inn Din.
The Burmese army took 10 Rohingya men from their place of refuge, seemingly by random, and told the civilians there that they needed them for a meeting. No such meeting occurred — they were summarily executed. Some were shot and some were hacked to death, by both Burmese soldiers and Buddhist villagers that had once been their neighbors. The oldest man was 45; the youngest was 17.
Though the Burmese government admitted to the existence of the grave, they claimed that they were under attack from 200 “terrorists” armed with swords and sticks. However, Reuters’ investigation went through Burmese soldiers, Rohingya refugees and Buddhist villagers — all of which deny that this attack ever happened.
The U.N. has described the actions against the Rohingya as “textbook ethnic cleansing,” and the U.S. has been consistently condemning the actions of the Burmese government since the onset of their Rohingya offensive. U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, also said that the violence “constitutes ethnic cleansing.”
This is the story that the two journalists were working on when they were arrested. Again, their evidence comes from multiple angles, incriminating the actions of the Burmese military and the Inn Din Buddhist villagers from all angles — to include themselves. The journalists, Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, were invited to a dinner at a Burmese police official’s house, when they were subsequently arrested under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. Some reports say that they were handed incriminating evidence and then immediately arrested thereafter.
The Ministry of Information said that they, “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media.” The two are facing 14 years in prison under the act, and many have seen it as yet another way of the Burmese government impinging upon the nation’s freedom of speech.
Multiple news agencies have been vying to travel to Inn Din to verify and continue to cover the story, but they have been consistently denied entry by the Burmese government.
The pertinent part of the Official Secrets Act reads as follows:
3. (1) If any person for any purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State—
(c) obtains, collects, records or publishes or communicates to any other person any secret
official code or password, or any sketch, plan, model, article or note or other document or
information which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be, directly or
indirectly, useful to an enemy.”
Reuters has now published the investigative piece they were working on when they were arrested, linked above.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.