While making predictions is a fool’s errand, it seems likely that the latest briefing from rights group Amnesty International will be received with no small amount of enthusiasm by both the Myanmar government and the general public — a fairly rare occurrence.
This will stand in stark contrast to the vociferous rejection of Amnesty’s other recent reports from the teeming refugee camps of southern Bangladesh, which detail crimes against humanity and atrocities committed by Myanmar security forces during a campaign of ethnic cleansing which all but purged the stateless Rohingya minority from northern Rakhine state.
In a statement and briefing paper released on May 22, Amnesty announced it found evidence that “overwhelmingly” indicates the August 25 massacre of 53 Hindus in a remote pocket of northwestern Rakhine state was committed by militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), also known as the al-Yaqin (Faith Movement).
Some 99 Hindu men, women and children are believed to have been killed: 53 from Kha Maung Seik village tract, and another 46 still unaccounted for from the neighboring Ye Bauk Kyar village. In late September 2017, 45 bodies of Hindus believed to be from Kha Maung Seik were exhumed from mass graves.
As Amnesty’s researchers note, arriving at this conclusion was no small task: “The survivors’ evolving stories made it difficult for journalists and human rights investigators — including Amnesty International — to come to a conclusion about the facts.”
The findings shed somee light on one of the bloodier chapters in Myanmar’s recent history, albeit not much. Many major questions remain and, as Amnesty notes, credible and independent on-the-ground investigation is still required.
The matter of whether the Kha Maung Seik massacre was committed on the orders of ARSA’s leadership, or was the result of an offshoot group or faction gone rogue, is not something Amnesty’s new research endeavors to explore.
That’s no doubt in part because very little is known about ARSA. Consistent information about the group’s power structure, chain of command, factional rifts and even its long-term goals is difficult to confirm apart from the militant group’s social media posts.
A Twitter account had been widely accepted as being the group’s (seemingly now-abandoned) outlet for press releases. But it’s still not entirely clear what the nature of the relationship was between those running the account and the leadership of the militancy, and how this may have changed over time.
Human rights groups tend to see undue focus placed on ARSA as victim-blaming and detracting from the real point: the undeniable and appalling suffering of Rohingya civilians, both inside Rakhine state and now in abysmal refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Myanmar citizens tend to think of it the other way around: the international focus on the Rohingya victim narrative is a willful exercise in covering up for atrocities and crimes committed by an expanding terrorist outfit. They see a concerted international conspiracy aimed at undermining the government.
Domestically, the ARSA-as-threat narrative has been played up to great effect. Images of hacked-up members of ethnic minorities from the country’s remote northwest have been distributed in a campaign that went beyond simply spreading information and was used to drum up consent for the military’s brutal “area clearance” operations.
The Hindu mass graves were no exception. While media access to the rest of Rakhine state was cut off, the government took journalists to the site where the Hindu corpses were being exhumed.
It doesn’t help that the government response to the Rakhine crisis has at times been farcical. The mass graves are not the first time ethnic minorities have been used as tools in what has become a craven propaganda war.
Hindu villagers were photographed committing arson and passed off as Rohingya in materials distributed to media — the very same Hindu villagers the government later supplied to journalists as interview subjects.
This sort of clumsy stage managing from the Directorate of Public Relations and Psychological Warfare has done little to restore faith in the government and often lends credence to conspiracy theories.
Similarly, the view that the international community has downplayed the threat posed by ARSA will be given new life by Amnesty’s claim that the group has “actively tried to cover up the crimes by forcing the surviving women to appear on camera implicating other perpetrators and through more general intimidation aimed at distorting the story.”
In the coming days, it can be expected that the government will welcome Amnesty’s findings and use them to buttress its own — all the while continuing to deny access to less pliable international media outlets, the United Nation Fact-Finding Mission and the UN’s Special Rapporteur to Myanmar.
While the exact details of what happened on August 25 at Kha Maung Seik may never be fully understood, what is desperately needed in Rakhine, and indeed across Myanmar, is an independent and credible reckoning that is allowed to expose uncomfortable truths on all sides.