Myanmar military uses photo of fleeing refugees to advertise elephant slave camp

The front page of Myawady on May 20, 2018.

Myanmar’s military-run newspaper Myawady published a photo on its front page yesterday showing displaced villagers in Kachin State fleeing across a river with the help of elephants. However, instead of accompanying an article about the war the military is waging in that area or the thousands of people it has displaced, the photo appeared under the irrelevant headline “Ngwe Saung Elephant Camp is alive with visitors.”

The article itself also omits any mention of the aerial bombings, mortar attacks, and shootouts that continue to drive civilians from their homes in the Myanmar military’s decades-long war against the Kachin Independence Army, which is driven by each side’s desire for control over the area’s valuable natural resources. The so-called “forgotten war” has displaced over 130,000 people since 2011.

UPDATE: Myawady removed this image from its Facebook page on May 21, 2018.

It’s not clear what the editors of Myawady were thinking when they used this photo, taken just a week ago, to represent an elephant camp almost 1,000 miles away, but the deception does not stop there. The Ngwe Saung Elephant Camp might sound like a nice tourist attraction, but that’s only part of its purpose. An investigation by the Myanmar Times in 2016 found that while it’s open during part of the day to allow tourists to come feed and ride baby elephants, it’s primary function is as a prison, where elephants that are stunned and kidnapped by humans from the wild are held and trained before they are old enough to start working in the logging industry.

It’s ironic that the news publication run by an institution that constantly accuses its critics of spreading “fake news” would publish something so obviously inaccurate on its front page, but it’s not surprising. This is just one iteration of the military’s war on truth. Another example is the military’s attempts to prevent the formation of new IDP camps, fearing that they will “damage the townships’ reputations.” This has led to thousands of civilians being trapped in conflict zones.

Yet another example is the ongoing defamation case against three ethnic Kachin human rights defenders – Mr. Lum Zawng, 29, Ms. Nang Pu, 47, and Mr. Zau Jat, 41 – who organized a press conference on April 30 and a peaceful demonstration on May 1 to call for an end to hostilities and for the evacuation of civilians from conflict zones. The cross-examination of prosecution witnesses in their cause began at the Myitkyina Township court today.

People riding on elephants to cross a river as they make their way looking for a shelter in Danai. Working elephants are widely used in the rough terrain of Kachin state. PHOTO: AFP

The Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT) and Fortify Rights condemned the case in a statement released today.

“The Myanmar military is so sensitive to criticism that the mere mention of their crimes elicits prosecutions,” said Matthew Smith, CEO of Fortify Rights. “The military is trying to shut down any conversation that might better inform the public about atrocities in Kachin State, and they’re blocking efforts that would lead to accountability.”

“The military have terrorized ethnic groups in Myanmar for generations. How much longer are we expected to tolerate it?” said KWAT general secretary Moon Nay Li. “The situation in Myanmar must be brought before the International Criminal Court, otherwise these atrocities are going to continue.”

If the military was trying to hide its crimes in Kachin State by publishing a photo of the destruction of Kachin communities alongside a seemingly innocuous story, it may turn out that the move will have the opposite effect.

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