As if 'Muslims were doing the burning...' | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 14, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:08 AM, September 14, 2017

As if 'Muslims were doing the burning...'

BBC correspondent Jonathan Head gives firsthand account of Myanmar govt-sponsored media trip to Rakhine

When the Rohingyas, who are fleeing violence in Myanmar in tens of thousands, say Myanmar security forces and Rakhine mobs are burning down their homes and killing their relatives, Myanmar denies it.

Restricted access for journalists to report on the ground in Rakhine makes it impossible to verify the claims. But, as the narratives of the Rohingya men and women arriving in Bangladesh dominate the world media, Myanmar government planned a media trip to parts of Rakhine recently.

BBC's Southeast Asia correspondent Jonathan Head, who was one of the 18 local and foreign journalists in the trip, describes in a report, published on September 11, how he found evidences that do not support Myanmar's claims that Rohingya Muslims burnt all the houses.

On arrival at Sittwe, capital of Rakhine, Myanmar officials instructed them not to leave the group and try to work independently. Journalists could request to go to places that interested them, but in practice their requests were rejected on grounds of security.

"To be fair, I believe they were genuinely concerned for our safety," Jonathan says.

After a six-hour journey from Sittwe to Buthidaung, they travelled for an hour on a rough road over the Mayu Hills to Maungdaw where they passed first burned village, Myo Thu Gyi. Even the palm trees were scorched.

The journalists were first taken to a small school in Maungdaw, now crowded with displaced Hindu families. They all had the same story to tell of Muslims attacking, of fleeing in fear.

"Oddly, Hindus who have fled to Bangladesh all say they were attacked by local Rakhine Buddhists, because they resemble Rohingyas," Jonathan said.

In the school the journalists were accompanied by armed police and officials. Jonathan doubted if they could speak freely in the presence of police. However, one man started to tell him how soldiers had been firing at his village, but quickly he was corrected by a neighbour.

A woman in an orange, lacy blouse and distinctive grey and mauve longyi was especially animated about the abuses by Muslims, he says in his narrative of the scene.

"We were then taken to a Buddhist temple, where a monk described Muslims burning down their own homes, nearby. We were given photographs catching them in the act. They looked strange," Jonathan Head writes.

Men in white haji caps posed as they set light to the palm-thatch roof. Women wearing what appeared to be lacy tablecloths on their heads melodramatically waved swords and machetes, he says.

"Later I found that one of the women was in fact the animated Hindu woman from the school, and I saw that one of the men had also been present in among the displaced Hindu... They had faked the photos to make it look as though Muslims were doing the burning.”

Colonel Phone Tint, the local minister for border security, described journalists how "Bengali terrorists", as they call the militants of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), had taken control of Rohingya villages, and forced them to offer one man per household as a fighter. Those who refused to comply have their houses burned. He accused the militants of planting mines and destroying three bridges, Jonathan says.

When he asked Phone Tint whether all of the dozens of burned villages had been destroyed by the militants, Tint confirmed that was the government's position. Regarding the military atrocities, he waved it away and asked: "Where is the proof?"

Rebutting rape allegations, Tint told journalists pointing at the Rohingya women, "Look at those women... would anyone want to rape them?"

The few Muslims the journalists were able to see in Maungdaw were mostly too scared to talk in front of a camera. Breaking away from their minders, they spoke to some who described the hardship of not being allowed to leave their neighbourhood by the security forces, of food shortages, and intense fear.

One young man told journalists they (Rohingya) had wanted to flee to Bangladesh, but their leaders had signed an agreement with the authorities to stay. In the now quiet Bengali market, Jonathan asked a man what he was frightened of. “The government,” said the young man.

The main destination on their itinerary outside Maungdaw was the coastal town of Alel Than Kyaw, one of the places attacked by ARSA militants in the early hours of 25 August.

"As we approached, we passed village after village, all completely empty. We saw boats, apparently abandoned, along with goats and cattle. There were no people," the BBC journalist describes.

Alel Than Kyaw had been razed to the ground. Even the clinic, with a sign showing it had been run by the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres, had been destroyed. To the north, in the distance, they could see four columns of smoke rising, and heard bursts of automatic weapons fire. They guessed more villages being put to the torch, he says.

Police Lieutenant Aung Kyaw Moe described to them how he had been given advance warning of the attack. He had taken the non-Muslim population for protection into his barracks, and his men fought off the armed assailants with guns, swords and home-made explosives, for three hours until they were driven off. Seventeen of the militants lay dead, and one immigration officer. The Muslim population fled shortly afterwards, Moe told journalists.

Jonathan says Moe, however, struggled to explain why parts of the town were still smouldering, two weeks after the attack, and in the rainy season. Lieutenant suggested half-heartedly that perhaps a few Muslims stayed on, and then set their homes alight before leaving more recently.

Then, on their way back from Alel Than Kyaw, something happened entirely unplanned.

They spotted black smoke billowing out of some trees, over the rice fields. It was another village going up, right by the road. And the fires had only just started.

"We all shouted at our police escort to stop the van. When they did, we just ran, leaving our bewildered government minder behind. The police came with us, but then declared it was unsafe to enter the village. So we went ahead of them," Jonathan said. 

The sound of burning and crackling was everywhere. Women's clothing, clearly Muslim, was strewn on the muddy path. And there were muscular young men, holding swords and machetes, standing on the path, baffled by the sight of 18 sweaty journalists rushing towards them, he says, adding that they tried to avoid being filmed, and two of them dashed further into the village, bringing out the last of their group and making a hasty exit.

They said they were Rakhine Buddhists. "One of my colleagues managed a quick conversation with one of them, who admitted they had set the houses on fire, with the help of the police," the BBC journalist says.

As they walked in, they could see the roof of the madrasa had just been set alight. School texts with Arabic script had been thrown outside. An empty plastic jug, reeking of petrol, had been left on the path.

The Muslim village was called Gawdu Thar Ya where they did not find any sign of the inhabitants.

"The Rakhine men who had torched the village walked out, past our police escort, some carrying household items they had looted," he noted.

The burning took place close to a number of large police barracks. No-one did anything to stop it, Jonathan said.

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