On May 22, 2018, Tirana Hassan, Crisis Response Director at Amnesty International released a briefing note titled, “Myanmar: New evidence reveals Rohingya armed group massacred scores in Rakhine State”. It may be seen at https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/05/myanmar-new-evidence-reveals-rohingya-armed-group-massacred-scores-in-rakhine-state/.
In the briefing note, Amnesty International stated “A Rohingya armed group brandishing guns and swords is responsible for at least one, and potentially a second, massacre of up to 99 Hindu women, men, and children as well as additional unlawful killings and abductions of Hindu villagers in August 2017, Amnesty International revealed today after carrying out a detailed investigation inside Myanmar’s Rakhine State.”
From the statement of the Amnesty International it appears that they have gathered enough evidence to implicate the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in genocidal massacres. Apparently, the evidence against ARSA is more clear and convincing than the evidence against the armed forces of Myanmar and the Buddhist mobs. While releasing the briefing note Tirana Hassan also refuted Myanmar government’s criticism that the international community was being one-sided while at the same time denying access to northern Rakhine State. Tirana Hassan added that, “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.”
Two versions of Massacre at Kha Maung Seik
According to Amnesty International it appears that one of the most prominent alleged massacres of Hindu Rohingyas in Kha Maung Seik (also known as Fakira Bazar) in Maungdaw Township was done by ARSA activists on August 25 and 26. Amnesty International claims that ARSA had abducted the eight Hindu women survivors, forcefully converted them to Islam, compelled them to marry and cohabit with the murderers of their husbands, parents and brothers. Amnesty International also claims that the eight Hindu women told the fabricated the story of Myanmar army and Buddhists killing of some 93 Hindu civilians to cover up their genocidal killing of Hindus, fearing for their own lives and the lives of their children who were also abducted by ARSA.
Hindus from Myanmar had joined streams of Muslim Rohingyas to seek refuge in Bangladesh after the killing of 86 people from their community in the ethnic violence in the neighbouring Buddhist-majority country. According to a news story in the First Post, a Bangladeshi government official had said that “a total of 414 Hindus from (Myanmar’s) Rakhine state took refuge at a Hindu village in Cox’s Bazar.” However, Bangladesh Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council President Rana Dasgupta, who visited the village, had claimed that the figure of Hindu refugees was 510, mostly women, children and the elderly, who were crammed into a wooden barn. Dasgupta said ordinary Rohingya Muslims escorted them to borders from where these Hindus entered Bangladesh along with thousands others. [https://www.firstpost.com/world/after-muslim-rohingyas-hindus-from-myanmar-seek-refuge-in-bangladesh-4008439.html]
Recalling the First Version of Kha Maung Seik Massacre
Kha Maung Seik was home to a mixed community, with Rohingya Muslims in the majority along with about 6,000 Rakhine Buddhists, Hindus and others. The relations between the Muslim Rohingyas and Hindu Rohingyas was cordial. However, the relations had been strained after Myanmar government had decided to grant citizenship to the Hindus. Because of the tension between the two communities, since October 2016, more soldiers were posted near the village, with border police. Patrols went house-to-house arresting anyone suspected of having militant links.
It is worth recalling what was reported by the Reuters on September 7, 2017, about nine months ago. Reuters had interviewed about 20 Muslims and Hindus in which they had recounted how they were forced out of their village of Kha Maung Seik in Myanmar’s Rakhine State on Aug. 25. Kadil Hussein, a refugee sheltering in Kutupalang camp said, “The military brought some Rakhine Buddhists with them and torched the village. … All the Muslims in our village, about 10,000, fled. Some were killed by gunshots, the rest came here. There’s not a single person left.” Villagers from Kha Maung Seik and neighbouring hamlets had described killings and the burning of homes in the military response to the attacks by ARSA
The villagers of Kha Maung Seik interviewed by Reuters said that they heard shooting at 2 a.m. on Aug. 25. A military source in Maungdaw town and two Muslim residents said militants attacked a police post near the village that night. Four Rohingya villagers separately gave Reuters accounts of how, at about 5 a.m., soldiers entered the village, firing indiscriminately. Thousands fled. Abul Hussein a 28 year old Rohingya refugee said, “I was at the front of a big group running for cover, but I looked back and could see people at the back getting shot”
Later, According to Hussein and three other villagers grenades and mortar bombs were fired into the forest. Husain had said, “I saw a mortar hit a group of people. Some died on the spot.” From the forest, residents had watched military and civilians loot and burn houses. Body Alom, another refugee said civilians were helping the army to gather bodies. Body Alom and two other villagers claimed, “they collected the bodies, searching for belongings. … They took money, clothes, cows, everything. Then they burned the houses.”
A group of Hindu women refugees in Kutupalong said they saw eight Hindu men killed by Buddhist Rakhines after they refused to attack Muslims. Anika Bala, who was six months pregnant told Reuters, “they asked my husband to join them to kill Rohingya but he refused, so they killed him.” She said Muslims helped her get to Bangladesh.
Reuters reported that a military official denied that Buddhist civilians were working with authorities and instead accused Muslims of attacking other communities. Anika Bala and other Hindu refugees subsequently changed their story. https://af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFKCN1BI0EZ
As we seen earlier, these Hindu survivors, particularly the women survivors had told journalists, aid workers and other Rohingya refugees in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh that their men were killed by security forces and armed men from the Mogh, local Rakhine. Their interviews were broadcast and they were quoted in newspapers all over the world. At the request of some Hindu leaders, these Hindu women were removed from the Muslim dominated camp by Bangladesh security forces to a camp for only Hindus. After reaching the Hindu only camp, the women changed their story. In late August 2017, all the eight Hindu Rohingya women had told Reuters and other international media persons that it was Rakhine Buddhists who had attacked them. But later on, after being shifted to the Hindu only camp in Ukhiya, three of them changed their statements to say the attackers were Rohingya Muslims, who brought them to Bangladesh and told them to blame the Rakhine Buddhists. They insisted that it was in fact the Muslim Rohingya activists belonging to ARSA who had carried out the massacre of the Hindus in the village of Kha Maung Seik (also known as Fakira Bazar) in Maungdaw Township.
The Women return to Myanmar
From the Hindu only camp in Cox’s Bazaar, the eight Hindu women survivors, subsequently returned to Myanmar at the intervention of U Kyaw Tint Swe a Minister in the office of the State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. Now they are being sheltered with other remaining members of Hindu community, still living in Rakhine state, by Myanmar authorities. When these survivors returned to Myanmar, their story changed for a second time. According to a news story in the Guardian of October 12, 2017, some of these returnees claimed that the attackers were masked and they did not know who was responsible.
In their video interview which may still be accessed on YouTube, the women did not explain how they knew the killers were Rakhines. As a matter of fact in some of the accounts, they unclear about that detail. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1xrk89bjlw 1:50) In the interview, Rekha Dhar described those wearing black outfits with “faces covered so we could not identify them.” Anika Dhar a Hindu woman survivor told Dhaka Tribune of “a group of men wearing black uniforms … armed to the teeth with guns and long knives” but they did not explain why they thought that the attackers were Buddhist.
The second Version: The killers were Rohingya Muslims belonging to ARSA
The earliest known media report about the second version of the killing in Kha Maung Seik was published on September 5, 2017 in The Irrawaddy, a pro Myanmar government news portal. The story said how an 8-year-old girl from the area was luckily away on the August 25 working in another village. Her family had been killed, except an older sister, who was among the eight kidnapped women living in a camp with Muslims in Bangladesh. She also learnt that her sister and other kidnapped women were rescued from the Muslim camp and had already made contact with home. She had already heard from others that “more than 80 members of their communities in Rakhine State had been killed by unidentified armed men … reportedly … Muslim militants.” In an interview on September 16, 2017 the sisters claimed they were now quite sure that the killers were genuine Islamists with ARSA, shouting Allahu Akbar behind their ski masks as they attacked. They massacred the girls’ families and husbands, and called the bloodletting their way of celebrating the feast of Eid al-Adha (feast of sacrifice), something they said they had been wanting to do for three years.
After the women returned to Myanmar around the end of September, they ostensibly provided a fuller account of the happening in their village to state run, Global New Light of Myanmar (GNLM), on October 5, 2017. The report quoted one of the women saying, “[A] group of about 500 Muslims terrorists led by a foreigner in black clothing and one Noru Lauk from Khamaungseik Village – attacked their village of Ye Baw Kya claiming this “is our territory. … We will murder Buddhists and all of you who worship the statues made of bricks and stones.” (https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/dozens-hindus-killed-maungdaw-relatives.html)
What the Amnesty International claims
Amnesty International believes the second version of women’s story. It also claims that Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has links with Islamic Jihadi organisations and that ARSA has a large following and it was able to mount a well organised and a coordinated attack on 30 army and police stations/camps on August 25, 2017. I propose to examine these findings of Amnesty International in the light of what has been extensively reported by many reporters, news agencies, human rights groups, the UN agencies and independent researchers.
Amnesty International says that early in the morning of 25 August 2017, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya armed group, attacked around 30 security force outposts in northern Rakhine State. Amnesty also claims that the attacks, were carefully planned and coordinated and in the days that followed, ARSA fighters, along with some mobilized Rohingya villagers, engaged in scores of clashes with security forces. Based on it interviews conducted in Sittwe and Yangon, Myanmar during April and May 2018 and a report of the ICG, “Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase”, Amnesty International has concluded that on 25 August, ARSA had mobilized a large number of Rohingya villagers – likely around several thousand with bladed weapons or sticks.
Various news reports that was published during August and September 2017, and particularly the Reuters report that I have quoted above, establish that Myanmar government has been following a dual policy towards the Rohingya. While it had offered to grant citizenship to the Hindu Rohingya, it had told the Muslims Rohingyas that they would get identity cards which would designate them as “foreigners”. This had created dissension among the Muslim in the village of with border police. The Myanmar army was aware of this tension between the two religious communities and as a result, they had deployed additional soldiers with border police near the village. Since October 2016, army and police patrols conducted house-to-house confiscating knives and axes and arresting anyone suspected of having militant links. Yet, on August 25, the ARSA militants were able to walk into the village, round up all the Hindu men and women, take them to the paddy fields, slaughter them, burry the bodies and stay with the captured women in the village for two days. The question that remains unanswered is where the Myanmar soldiers and the border police which was already deployed in this village.
In its briefing on May 22, 2018, the Amnesty International claimed that it has documented serious human rights abuses committed by ARSA during and after the attacks in late August 2017. This briefing focused on serious crimes – including unlawful killings and abductions – carried out by ARSA fighters against the Hindu community living in northern Rakhine State. In the refugee camps in Bangladesh in September 2017, Amnesty International conducted 12 interviews with members of the Hindu community who left Myanmar during the violence. In April 2018, Amnesty International conducted research in Sittwe, Myanmar on ARSA abuses and attacks, interviewing 10 additional people from the Hindu community and 33 people from ethnic Rakhine, Khami, Mro, and Thet communities, all of whom were from northern Rakhine State. Six more people from an area where Hindu killings occurred were interviewed by phone from outside the region in May 2018.
Not much is known about the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA), formerly known as Harakatul Yakeen. It had first emerged in October 2016 when it attacked three police outposts in the Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships, killing nine police officers. According to information given by Myanmar government, ARSA has been operating inside Arakan. On May 15, 2017, in a video uploaded to social media, Ataullah Abu Amar Jununi had claimed that they were mobilizing people for "Our legitimate self-defence is a necessary struggle justified by the needs of human survival." Mr. Phill Hynes, an expert on insurgency in the region had told CNN that he had information that “up to 150 foreign fighters were involved in the ARSA movement”. [http://www.cnn.com/2018/01/10/asia/myanmar-rohingya-militants-arsa-intl/index.html]. ARSA has denied all charges of foreign help and publicly rejected offers by Al Qaeda, Islamic State and others to send fighters. [http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/09/arsa-group-denies-links-al-qaeda-isil-170914094048024.html]
Contrary to what Amnesty International’s claim the ARSA had mounted a well organised coordinated attack on about 30 Myanmar army and police posts, Rohingyas living in Maungdaw Township had told Al Jazeera that the ARSA men, numbered only a few dozen. They had, stormed the outposts with sticks and knives, and after killing the officers, they fled with light weaponry. [https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/09/myanmar-arakan-rohingya-salvation-army-170912060700394.html]
Clearly, the hitherto small ARSA movement had become surprisingly strong band of well organised fighters to be able to manage such a huge offensive on some 30 security posts at once. And yet clue to this mobilization we have is a WhatsApp audio message reportedly issued by the leader of ARSA on August 24 which asked all Rohingya men above 14 to participate in the attack on August 25. International Crisis Group (ICG) quoted this WhatsApp message perhaps to indicate a massive new recruitment at the last moment, bucking all prior estimates of the group’s strength. The theory that they might also have teamed up with other groups to boost their power, but has not been substantiated till date.
The ARSA attack of August 25, 2017 was reported widely all over the world. The most detailed story was published by the Irrawaddy, a pro-government news portal bases in Yangon. As we will see, even the news story published by Irrawaddy does not support Amnesty International’s claim of large scale mobilization armed insurgents by ARSA. It is interesting to recall that quoting from a statement issued by Myanmar Army Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the Irrawaddy had reported that about 10 police and one Myanmar Army soldier were killed in attacks on 24 border guard posts, police stations, and army bases by Muslim militants in Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships in northern Rakhine State on Thursday night and Friday morning, according to on Friday. According to the same report, five firearms were looted by the attackers and the bodies of 15 suspected militants were found. It was the largest attack by Rohingya Muslim militants since assaults on border guard posts in October 2016. In an earlier statement on the official Facebook page of the State Counselor’s Office Information Committee had said that “the extremist Bengali insurgents attacked a police station in Maungdaw region in northern Rakhine state with a handmade bomb explosive and held coordinated attacks on several police posts at 1 a.m.”
Though it has been said that thousands of armed Rohingya had joined the ARSA in attacking the army posts, the Irrawaddy story, quoting from the statement of the commander-in-chief had said that, “some 150 men allegedly attacked Infantry Base 552 and an explosive device was used in an attack in Maungdaw”. According to the State Counselor’s Office statement, “another 150 men allegedly attacked a police station at Taung Bazaar at 3 a.m. and the bodies of six suspected attackers were found”. The government statement had listed not 30 but the 24 locations that had come under attack—including Koe Tan Kauk in Rathedaung, which were also attacked by militants in October 2016. It said attacks were ongoing at the time of the statement’s release early Friday morning. The New York Times on August 25, 2017 had carried a similar story quoting from a statement from the office of Myanmar’s de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi claiming that in the attack at least 12 members of the security forces and at least 59 Rohingya insurgents were killed. The New York Times story also said that according to a statement. Myanmar’s armed forces the militants used knives, small arms and explosives in the early-morning attacks on several police and military posts around Buthidaung and Maungdaw, near Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh. [https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/muslim-militants-stage-major-attack-rakhine.html]
On September 13, 2017, Ms. Anagha Neelakantan, the Asia Programme Director at the International Crisis Group, had told Al Jazeera that there was no clear ideology underpinning the group’s actions. "From what we understand the group is fighting to protect the Rohingya and not anything else," she said. Neelakanthan told Al Jazeera that she was unclear as to how many fighters the group currently has, Neelakantan explained, adding that there was "no evidence that ARSA has any links to local or international Jihadist groups, or that their aims are aligned".
Amnesty given Access to Northern Rakhine
Since 25 August 2017, the government Myanmar had blocked access to northern Rakhine State by the UN and most other humanitarian actors. The International Committee, International Federation, and Myanmar Red Cross Society were permitted to work, although they faced delays and restrictions as well as enormous logistical challenges in reaching populations in need. They made repeated requests to the government for grant of access to the communities in need in Rakhine state. It was only on 6 November, the World Food Programme was able to resume food aid to Rohingya and non-Rohingya communities through the government but with no staff access to monitor distribution directly.
Yet Amnesty International claims that it was able to send its investigators to Yangon and Sittwe and talk to the survivors independently. Ashley S. Kinseth a human rights lawyer who worked with a humanitarian NGO in Rakhine and had lived in Rakhine for several months before the August 25 ARSA attack, was told to move out on August 24 by the government. She has said that in Myanmar all movements were restricted and monitored by the army and security forces. Amnesty claims that their investigators met some of these women in Sittwe. Amnesty has not disclosed how they got access to these women and other witnesses to Sittwe. We have also not been told whether Amnesty team examined the three or four graves/pits from which the bodies were recovered and whether those narrow graves/pits could hold so many bodies. It is important for Amnesty International to clearly state its position on the graves/pits, as the photos of the mass graves or pits were publicized by Myanmar army and they exist in the public domain. Adam Larson of The Indicter Magazine had collected and analyzed the photos of the graves to assess whether so many bodies could have been buried in those narrow graves. According to Larson all three graves/pits were remarkably small in area, or narrow – one body wide at most. He concluded that to hold 12, 16, and 17 corpses each, as reported by Myanmar army, these had to be very deep, almost like well shafts. The bodies had to be piled in vertically, perhaps three bodies across and several layers deep. Furthermore, the way each of the pits were tucked into the edge of the brush, it suggested that the killers wanted these to stay hidden. If it weren’t for the survivors’ tips, they might have never been found. These were found by Myanmar army after the Hindu survivors gave them the location. Yet all the women in their statements have claimed that the black clad Rohingya killers had tied up the captured men and women away from the village to kill and burry the bodies in some place which they did not see. [http://theindicter.com/fake-news-and-massacre-marketing-in-the-rohingya-crisis-part-i-questioning-the-massacre-stories-1/]
Amnesty International’s regional director James Gomez needs to look into this chain of contradictions. It is important to remember that an evolving story that adapts to shifting public perception is a sign of repeated falsification. Sloppy accusations of brutal killing of Hindus and Buddhists against ARSA, betray intuitive attachment to a country performing violence rather than empathy for those on its receiving end.