Myanmar govt spokesman calls out fake news, then posts his own

Photo: Facebook / Zaw Htay
Photo: Facebook / Zaw Htay

Just two days after calling out the Turkish deputy prime minister for sharing false information about the violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay was caught disseminating his own fake news and was pressured to delete a tweet.

August 29, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek tweeted four photographs with a message urging the international community to stop the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas in Rakhine State.

The tweet received thousands of reactions, many of which pointed out that none of the photos depicted the current violence in Rakhine State. Three of them were not even taken in Myanmar. Simsek deleted the tweet on September 1 and apologized for the error.

On September 4, Zaw Htay, who serves as director-general of the office of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, tweeted a warning to his followers about purveyors of fake news and singled out the Turkish deputy prime minister as an example.

Then, on September 6, Zaw Htay sent out another tweet, this one containing four photos of people “setting fire on their own houses.” The photos were from an Eleven article with the headline “Photos emerge of Bengalis who are setting fire to their houses.” The tweet also claimed the homes were in Quarter 4 of Maungdaw.

The photos raised numerous red flags. Many commenters were quick to point out that the ornamental table mats tied around the heads of the women in the photos look nothing like the hijabs some Rohingya women wear.

Others called attention to the white kufis worn by the men in the photos, saying they were too clean to be authentic and that it was unlikely that Rohingya men would wear them outside of prayer time.

Eventually, netizens discovered that one of the men seen lighting the fires in the photos appeared earlier in a photo published by Mizzima about Hindus fleeing violence in Rakhine.

Furthermore, Rohingya activist Nay San Lwin told Coconuts that his contacts in Maungdaw have identified one of the women in the photos as a worker from a nearby Hindu monastery. He said they have also determined that the homes in the photos were in an abandoned Rohingya village but not in Quarter 4.

Facing a torrent of accusations of endorsing the co-opting of Hindu refugees to frame Rohingyas for arson, Zaw Htay deleted the tweet, though not before screenshots made their way across social media.

Curiously, rather than apologizing for the error, as the Turkish deputy prime minister did, Zaw Htay doubled down by tweeting the photos again later the same day, this time without the claim about the homes being in Quarter 4 and with an assertion that he had been in touch with “anonymous person” who took the photos.

The tweet has been met with the same fact-checks as the original one, but Zaw Htay seems uninterested in engaging with them.

The Myanmar government has claimed for years that Rohingyas have been burning their own homes in an effort to frame the military and local Buddhists. Rohingyas and human rights groups consistently counter that the opposite is true.

It’s impossible to know who has started every fire since the turmoil began, but as of yesterday, there have been some first-hand reports by a foreign journalist that Rakhines are burning Rohingya villages as police watch.

These accounts appear to support the claim that Myanmar authorities are complicit, on some level, in the burning or Rohingya homes. Zaw Htay’s tweets tell us how far up the chain this complicity goes.

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