For years now, the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar has been broadcast to the world largely through volunteers who use smartphones to send photos, audio and video clips out to the Rohingya diaspora, larger Muslim community and the world. In the camps in the south of Bangladesh, refugees show images and videos of scenes of violence back home on their phones. Members of these WhatsApp or Facebook groups include the Rohingya diaspora in countries as wide-ranging as Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and the UK.
Rakhine state has been “closed” to the outside world with the government restricting access to the region to independent observers, journalists, rights groups, and the UN. “Due to the denial of access to the region, it is essentially impossible to get information,” says Rohingya refugee Mohammed Rafique, founder of The Stateless, a Rohingya community news portal.
What little has come out has been through social media, community outlets, and blogs. Two prominent sources of news online include the Rohingya Blogger and The Stateless.
Nay San Lwin, based in Germany, runs the Rohingya Blogger. The blog has become an important news media outlet for documenting human rights abuses against the Rohingya as well as featuring major international articles doing the same. Lwin's father, U Ba Sein, founded the website in 2005 and Lwin himself has been blogging since 2012. “We have gathered a great deal of evidence which arguably amount to show genocide has occurred against the Rohingya,” stated Lwin recently at a conference organised by the Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit (RMMRU) in Dhaka.
The year 2012 marked deadly riots between Buddhists and the Rohingya in the state of Rakhine, with allegations that the subsequently deployed military committed human rights abuses in Rohingya villages. As the national media largely ignored the violence, Rohingya community leaders and members of the diaspora set up their own media outlets to document and report on atrocities being committed in the state.
It was at this time that both Rohingya Blogger and The Stateless came into being. Lwin formed a team of volunteers based in northern Rakhine state. His team members keep tabs on all the villages in the area to document actions of the Border Guard Police (BGP), military and civilian authorities against the Rohingya.
“We also have volunteers in central Rakhine state who are reporting about the situation of refugee camps,” says Lwin. Around 120,000 internally displaced Rohingya have been interned in camps across Rakhine State since 2012 with the government restricting the UN and aid groups from distributing vital food aid or providing healthcare services.
Rohingya Blogger also has volunteers this side of the border, who have covered several incidents in the camps. They do not have problems recruiting, says Lwin, because they are well-known and many are willing to cooperate for the sake of getting information of their plight out to the world.
The Rohingya Blogger team works discreetly, even among the villagers who are their sources. They are also anonymous online as they could all be sentenced to long imprisonment for their activities, says Lwin.
“Two of our team members were arrested two years ago but they managed to get released by themselves. We didn't publicise that they were our members as they would have been sentenced to imprisonment for their work. Some non-members who sent reports to us were arrested as well and four people from Buthidaung township have been sentenced for six years,” says Lwin.
Mobile phones have been available in the villages of Rakhine state only since 2014. Even without, says Lwin, his sources are tenacious. Lwin says of his experiences over the years, “I used to receive handwritten information. They know how to send information and they know how to reach me. I have even received handwritten reports from prison cells.”
What's changed in 2017? For one, half of Lwin's team is now in Bangladesh, having fled there since the most recent spate of violence August onwards. The rest of the volunteers remain in their villages but mobility is no longer an option. Many of their contacts, too, have fled across the border. This has led to a change in focus for the blog. “As the atrocities against the Rohingya are mostly known to the world by now, we are shifting our attention to writing news updates in Burmese to better inform Burmese Buddhists,” says Lwin.
Lwin and his news site have come under attack by the government. An article published in January of this year was dismissed by the Information Committee of the State Counsellor's Office as “fabricated”. “Our work has been publicly attacked by the government and the military. The official Facebook page of the Office of the President has attempted to attack and discredit us. They claim that our evidence and reporting was fake news,” stated Lwin at the RMMRU conference.
The Stateless is also run by a member of the Rohingya diaspora, based in Ireland. This, too, is run with the help of volunteers based within Rakhine State who operate with no pay and undertaking enormous risk.
Mobile journalism has been crucial for the persecuted Rohingya to get information out, using social media groups in WhatsApp and WeChat among others.“We normally go through a process in the groups to verify the authenticity of information by confirming with other members and video or imagery evidence. Then we proceed in writing the report,” says Rafique.
Recently, there have been reports of journalists documenting the Rohingya crisis going missing, targeted by the military. Since October 9 of last year, nine out of 10 of their mobile journalists have either disappeared or been killed, reports Rafique.
Since August 25 of this year, hundreds of villages have been entirely destroyed by the military with over 600,000 having sought refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh. The Stateless is currently starved of information with no sources left in the villages of Rakhine, says Rafique. This draught of information also has repercussions for human rights activists and international media outlets which depend on community sources in the otherwise “closed” state for information from inside.
Burmese journalists have not been spared, even on this side of the border. In September, Minzayar Oo and Hkun Lat, two photojournalists from Myanmar, were detained for almost 10 days. According to Bangladesh police, they were arrested for conducting their journalist work while on tourist visas. Ironic, considering that the rest of the world's journalists have been going about their work in Cox's Bazar without the threat of arrest.
The international media have finally taken a sustained interest in the matter due to the influx of over a million refugees into Bangladesh over the last year. But the work of these Rohingya mobile journalists remains as important as ever. With Rakhine still closed to the outside world, information from the epicenter of the crisis is vital to the fight of the Rohingya both inside and outside Myanmar.