Myanmar's Rohingya: Truth, lies and Aung San Suu Kyi

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A woman holding a baby looks at another child in her villageImage source, Empics
Image caption,
The Rohingya say they have been trading in the region for generations

A government-appointed investigation is due to publish its final report on whether atrocities have been committed against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

With journalists banned from northern Rakhine state, the Burmese government has been trying to counter allegations that its soldiers have been raping and killing civilians.

Readers have told us they would like to know more about Rakhine and what is happening to civilians there.

We asked our correspondent Jonah Fisher, in Myanmar, to tell us more.

Donald Trump and Aung San Suu Kyi have more in common than you might think.

The leaders of the United States and Myanmar are both aged the wrong side of 70, both have much-discussed hair and share a strong dislike of journalists.

Mr Trump's turbulent relationship with the media is covered extensively. Ms Suu Kyi's may come as a surprise.

"The Lady", as she's known here, became famous in the 1990s as an icon of human rights and democracy. While under military-enforced house arrest in Rangoon, reporters took great risks to speak to her, to hear her courageous story of resistance.

Now Ms Suu Kyi is in power, things are rather different.

She has created a powerful role for herself called State Counsellor to fulfil a promise of being "above the President". In practice that seems to also mean "above" public scrutiny.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Aung San Suu Kyi speaking at a conference

Ms Suu Kyi now never gives interviews to the Burmese press and carefully hand picks her encounters with international media. There is no regular questioning from MPs in parliament and there has not been a proper press conference since just before the election 14 months ago.

Then there is the propaganda, which is eerily reminiscent of the dark Burmese days of censorship and military rule.

Who are the Rohingya?

On a daily basis, state-run newspapers print articles that denounce the international media for stories that highlight the plight of the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority.

There are about one million Rohingya living in Myanmar and they have been discriminated against for decades. For the last three-and-a-half months, those living in the north of Rakhine State have also been subject to a brutal military crackdown.

Exactly what is happening there depends on who you choose to believe, as the government has kept out everyone who is independent.

Some claim the Burmese army is committing ethnic cleansing, even genocide but that is rejected by the Burmese army and Ms Suu Kyi, who says it is a counter-terrorism operation to catch the Rohingya militants who started the crisis when they attacked police outposts.

Rare interview

So it was a surprise when last week, the BBC finally received permits from the Rakhine State government to go to the conflict area. We quickly flew to the capital Sittwe and boarded a ferry heading north up the Mayu River, towards the border with Bangladesh.

Four hours, and several Burmese films later, we were in Buthidaung, only 45 minutes from the conflict area.

Media caption,

Inside Myanmar's closed Rakhine region

Unfortunately the authorities were there too. A welcoming party of policemen and security officials blocked our path up the pier and "offered" to take us to the township administration.

Once there we were politely informed that permission for our trip had been withdrawn. Word had reached Ms Suu Kyi's government in the capital Naypyidaw and the order had been given to stop us.

Before we boarded the boat back, a local administrator agreed to do an on-camera interview.

This in itself was a minor triumph. Ms Suu Kyi and her spokesman have rejected all our approaches to speak about Rakhine since the latest crisis flared in early October.

Image caption,
It has been tough to set up interviews with Ms Suu Kyi's spokesman

A doctor by trade, Than Htut Kyaw is a Burmese Buddhist who has lived in northern Rakhine State for the last 10 years. Chatting to him, it soon became clear that he, like many Burmese, believes that reports of atrocities being committed against the Rohingya are simply fabricated.

"We have nothing to hide," he told me. "The national government is releasing all the true facts about this situation. The teachings of Burmese Buddhism do not allow raping. It's all just rumours."

Verification challenges

The problem for Ms Suu Kyi is that it is more than just rumours. With journalists and aid workers unable to get access, the Rohingya have taken reporting into their own hands. They have been filming their own testimony on smartphones and sending it via messaging apps to those outside the country.

Over the last few months I have seen a steady stream of appalling videos of women with bruises on their faces saying they were raped, bodies of children lying on the ground and burnt skulls in piles of ash.

Verifying them is difficult but not impossible. Often there are multiple sources from the same location and some organisations have discreet networks of people on the ground. Usually Burmese state media puts out its own version of events.

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Rohingya Muslims 'hated and hounded from Burmese soil'

It's not easy to verify precise numbers, given that people are usually fleeing and have no overall perspective. But those videos are important snapshots that show without doubt that something awful has been taking place.

The response of Ms Suu Kyi and her officials to them has been straight out of the Mr Trump playbook.

What the media says

Firstly they sought to discredit the overwhelming evidence about the Rohingya by focusing on the few occasions when the media has got things wrong.

For example, a piece in the Mail Online which alleged that a toddler being tortured was Rohingya (he was Cambodian) became front page news in state media, even though it was rapidly taken down.

Similarly, interpreting a speech by Ms Suu Kyi to suggest she laughed at the Rohingya issue also caused a huge outcry and a threat of legal action.

At times the propaganda emerging from Ms Suu Kyi's officials has been truly bizarre.

Image source, SCOIC/Facebook
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State Counsellor Office Information Committee posted a photo from a scene in the film Rambo

At the beginning of January the State Counsellor's office posted a picture of Sylvester Stallone, the Hollywood actor, dressed as Rambo fighting his way through the jungle. It was used as an example of the fake pictures that the Rohingya are supposedly using to support their false stories.

It is not clear who may have been so stupid as to post it, possibly a lone Facebook user. But focusing on it is a tactic we have also seen in Washington this week, using a mistake from one person to dismiss or distract from the overwhelming evidence of others.

More detailed stories that have appeared on CNN and The Guardian from Rohingya who fled into Bangladesh have been crudely "debunked". For this there is a set formula being used.

Security officials are sent to the featured Rohingya's home village and their family or neighbours are rounded up and asked to sign statements casting doubt on the story.

Could propaganda be stopped?

There are countries, Britain among them, who are giving Ms Suu Kyi the benefit of the doubt, stressing the positive aspects of Myanmar's still impressive move away from dictatorship.

After all, Ms Suu Kyi is still new in office and constitutionally does not control the army or police.

She probably could not stop the military operation in Rakhine if she tried and, whatever her many flaws, all agree she is Myanmar's best hope at present.

The problem is that Ms Suu Kyi could stop the inflammatory propaganda.

Ministries she controls and officials she directly employs are rubbishing the accounts of desperate people and repeating as fact the denials of the Burmese army. That is the same army that has an appalling track record of burning villages and raping women from Myanmar's many ethnic minorities.

Under pressure from abroad, Ms Suu Kyi did set up a commission to investigate the alleged abuses and it is due to report back in the next few days. But it is headed by the vice-president Myint Swe, a former general, and is widely expected to be a whitewash.

The truth about what has been happening in northern Rakhine state may never be truly uncovered.