A fissure that has long been forming within the Rohingya rights community was exposed this week when Amnesty International released a report that many found less than helpful to their cause. The report claims to have solved the mystery of who killed 53 Hindu villagers in the hours after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) began its assault on police outposts in northern Rakhine State on Aug. 25, 2017. When stories of the massacre first came to light a few days later, the perpetrators were consistently described as masked men dressed in black. Since then, the question has been: Who were they?
Myanmar’s government and military have consistently blamed ARSA for the killings of Hindus in Ah Nauk Kha Maung Seik village, while Rohingya activists and some of their allies have blamed Myanmar security forces. Amnesty’s report, based on interviews with Hindu survivors of the massacre, has sided firmly with the government. The report says: “The evidence overwhelmingly indicates that ARSA was responsible for the massacre.”
This conclusion has prompted some activists to lose faith in the organization. Rohingya activist Nay San Lwin told Coconuts: “I’ve lost trust in Amnesty. I helped them a lot with their previous reports. But since they collaborated with the government, I can’t trust them anymore.”
Amnesty’s Myanmar researcher Laura Haigh rejected this accusation, telling Coconuts: “During our research in Rakhine State in April 2018, Amnesty International did not liaise with or meet the government. We had authorization from Rakhine State officials to be in central Rakhine State, but that was the extent of our engagement with the authorities. To interview Hindu survivors, family members of those who were killed, and leaders of the local Hindu community, Amnesty International worked with a trusted individual who has no affiliation with the Myanmar government, military, or authorities more generally.”
Those who reject the report’s findings are unlikely to accept Haigh’s claims. Those whose minds were made up before the report came out have shown that their minds have little chance of ever changing.
However, it is still worth assessing the report’s value to those who have been on the fence about the massacre for the past 10 months. The key question being: have the report’s claims lived up to their stated goal of proving that Rohingya militants – not anyone else – massacred the Hindu residents of Ah Nauk Kha Maung Seik village?
Aside from the identity of the perpetrators, there is much that is not disputed in the public record of what happened in Ah Nauk Kha Maung Seik village on Aug. 25 and in the month that followed. That morning, hundreds of men entered the village, some shrouded in black masks, some in plainclothes. They rounded up the village’s 69 residents, bound them, and slashed and hacked 53 of them to death. Only the lives of eight women and eight of their children were spared. When Myanmar security forces arrived in the area two days later, the women fled to Bangladesh.
On Aug. 29, the survivors were filmed in a Bangladeshi refugee camp accusing Myanmar security forces and Rakhine Buddhist civilians of carrying out the massacre. They would remain in the camp for nearly a month.
On Sept. 23, a Hindu community leader named Ni Maw, who claimed to have been in touch with the women, led security forces to four mass graves that contained the mutilated remains of 45 Hindu men, women, and children. Eight bodies were never recovered. Myanmar immediately blamed “ARSA extremist Bengali terrorists” for the killings, and the women were promptly repatriated to Myanmar on Oct. 3 to corroborate that narrative. (Not a single Rohingya Muslim was repatriated for another six months.) ARSA has denied involvement in the massacre.
Using a combination of news reports and firsthand interviews with the survivors, Amnesty presents six claims as “evidence” that the survivors’ accusations against Myanmar security forces on Aug. 29 were false and their more recent accusations against ARSA true. However, while the report provides a clear view of the path that led to that conclusion, not everyone agrees that the path is paved with actual evidence.
“Nothing in their six-point review of evidence categorically demonstrates anything,” said Shafiur Rahman, a documentarian whose interviews with villagers in the area of the massacre previously exposed contradictions in the government narrative. A closer look at the six claims may further expose this shaky ground.
In the first of its evidentiary claims, Amnesty acknowledges the women’s contradictory testimonies and the logical conclusion that one or the other must be false. However, rather than maintaining skepticism about demonstrably unreliable witnesses, the report concludes that the Aug. 29 testimony must have been false because of “pressures and threats to personal safety that they faced while in Bangladesh.”
What the report does not acknowledge are the pressures the women have endured since they were conscripted into the government’s public relations machine. The women were certainly under this pressure after they were repatriated in early October. Haigh, the Amnesty researcher, said it would not be accurate to say the women changed their story when they were repatriated because they had already implicated ARSA in interviews with the rights group before they were repatriated. It is conspicuous, then, that the Amnesty report does not quote any of these accusations. The report contains three quotes in which the women blame “Muslims” for the massacre. All of them are from interviews conducted in April or May 2018. This does not mean that the women did not blame ARSA while still in Bangladesh; it only means that the report does not reflect this claim.
Furthermore, it has been reported that Ni Maw, the Hindu community leader who led security personnel to the mass graves, was in touch with the women before they were repatriated. It is possible that the women abandoned their Aug. 29 testimony and began blaming ARSA when the prospect of repatriation came into view.
Moreover, Amnesty chose a significant week in which to fail to mention the women’s role in Myanmar’s public relations efforts. On Tuesday, Rika Dhar (pictured above), one of three women who told Amnesty last month that “Muslims” committed the massacre, was ushered before a group of government-selected international journalists on a managed tour of northern Rakhine State, where she continued to affirm the government’s narrative. Ni Maw was there, too, helping to clarify the journalists’ questions.
Amnesty’s second claim is that the women’s descriptions of their attackers matched descriptions of other attackers in northern Rakhine State who were later determined to have been ARSA members. While important, this claim fails to disprove the women’s Aug. 29 testimony. If the massacre had been orchestrated by the military, as the women said, would ostensibly have been planned in such a way as to implicate ARSA. Security forces were made aware of ARSA and its tactics during the group’s previous assaults on security outposts in Oct. 2016.
In the third claim, Amnesty says the women heard their attackers speaking the Rohingya dialect. This is a repetition of the first claim. If the women wanted to assert that the attackers were Muslim, they would naturally say they spoke Rohingya. This point contains no proof that the Aug. 29 testimony was false. Furthermore, the testimony upon which this claim is based does not even contain the information most essential to its argument. The quote in the report reads: “He spoke the [Rohingya] language.”
The fourth claim is utterly bizarre because there is no debate about the information it presents. It cites a forensic anthropological expert as saying that photographs of the remains of the victims point to “homicide in the form of extrajudicial and summary executions” and do not rule out death on Aug. 25. This implicates no one in particular. No one disputes that whoever committed the murders did so in summary execution-style on Aug. 25.
The fifth claim is that the arrival of a Myanmar military helicopter to provide backup to security forces in the area of Ah Nauk Kha Maung Seik village on Aug. 27 rules out the possibility that the area was controlled by security forces on Aug. 25. While interesting and meaningful, this point also does not rule out the possibility that the women were telling the truth on Aug. 29. In fact, if the massacre was military-backed, the arrival of backup two days later could suggest an effort to give the military plausible deniability for involvement in the massacre.
The sixth claim is that the women recognized specific Rohingya villagers, one of whom was confirmed by Amnesty to have been a resident of the area. This, too, does not disprove the women’s Aug. 29 testimony, as there is no evidence that the villager was there by choice, nor is there any suggestion that his presence reveals anything about the identities of the masked men leading the attack.
Amnesty stretches this “evidence” a mile further by arguing that on the basis of these six points, ARSA must also have killed 46 Hindus who disappeared from a neighboring village later in the day on Aug. 25, which would bring the Rohingya militia’s death toll up to 99. However, relatives of the missing villagers only said that they presume that the same people who killed the residents of Ah Nauk Kha Maung Seik killed their loved ones. According to the Aug. 29 testimony of the eight women, this would not have been ARSA.
The purpose of this skepticism is not to imply that Myanmar was behind the massacre. It is only to demonstrate that Amnesty set out to disprove the claim that anyone but ARSA was behind the Hindu massacres, and it in no way succeeded. To read this report and feel no closer to the truth is not to side with ARSA; it is to bear in mind the two contexts in which the key witnesses gave totally contradictory testimonies. It is to expect actual evidence.
An unrequited assist
After weighing the six points, Rahman, the documentarian, said: “One wonders why would Amnesty go out on a limb to do this?”
Amnesty is surprisingly upfront about its intentions. Citing a statement on May 15 by Myanmar’s permanent UN representative that accuses critics of failing to acknowledge ARSA’s abuses, the report says: “The Myanmar government cannot criticize the international community as being one-sided while at the same time denying access to northern Rakhine State. The full extent of ARSA’s abuses and the Myanmar military’s violations will not be known until independent human rights investigators, including the UN Fact-Finding mission, are given full and unfettered access to Rakhine State.”
The report, then, is a barefaced feint of impartiality aimed at encouraging Myanmar to play along with the human rights groups it has been dismissing since the Rohingya refugee crisis began.
“But then, surely, it is a tactical mistake of the highest order to reach a definitive conclusion,” said Rahman. “What investigation is necessary if you have unearthed the culprit?”
Since the report’s release, no government-sanctioned UN investigation has appeared on the horizon. Amnesty’s spectacle, it seems, will only be repaid with more of the same. The day after the report came out in Myanmar, the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar – the same newspaper that first published the women’s testimonies about their “Muslim” attackers – proudly splashed its sixth page with a roundup of international headlines that cited the Amnesty report as proof of what the government had been saying all along.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay, meanwhile, whose eagerness to discredit the victims of Myanmar’s military violence led to him getting caught red-handed pushing a proven false flag theory, could not seem to muster much enthusiasm for Amnesty’s assist.
When asked by reporters what he thought of the report, Zaw Htay said: “We already published [reports that] many Hindus were killed by ARSA during their terrorist attacks in northern Rakhine. It’s about 10-month-old-information. I don’t understand why these rights groups didn’t write about ARSA’s terror activities in the past, but [I] appreciate very much to [Amnesty] for their new report.”
Additional reporting by Connor Macdonald. TOP PHOTO: Rika Dhar, 25, one of the survivors of the Ah Nauk Kha Maung Seik massacre, meets journalists on a government-facilitated media tour of northern Rakhine State on May 22, 2018. Photo by Connor Macdonald.