What Is Behind Amnesty’s Burmese Military-Friendly Report?
Amnesty International’s latest briefing report on the Rohingya crisis has managed to create a stir in an already riotous social media scene around Myanmar. The report has attracted widespread condemnation, including a comment by the Bangladesh foreign minister, branding it “illogical.”
The report focuses on a particular massacre of Hindus in Northern Rakhine state.
Myanmar authorities dated the killings to 25 August, the very day it launched its clearance operations in Rakhine state in response to alleged ARSA attacks throughout the state.
Rohingya activists have been outraged and have taken to social media to question Amnesty’s motives in releasing such a report.
Others have weighed in saying that whatever the shortcomings, in the context of an information black hole, the report adds to the case for a full International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation of the Rakhine crisis.
This has stung the various Rohingya advocacy groups, not because ARSA has been blamed, but because Rohingya, who have been at the receiving end of human rights violations for decades, are now associated with violations themselves.
Their immediate fear is that the incendiary report further endangers the already extremely vulnerable Rohingya who still remain in Rakhine state. They feel particularly aggrieved because Amnesty’s methodology and review of evidence appear to flout all semblance of independence and rigour.
Amnesty International Has Many Questions to Answer
The Quint had previously reported the other difficulty with Amnesty’s six arguments of ARSA culpability. Hindu refugees in Bangladesh stated that the “black forces” had killed both Hindus and Muslims.
A Hindu man who lost his own family members to the black forces stated this on film. Moreover, he was unable to identify them as Muslim. Another respondent told this reporter how Muslims and Hindus left together to escape from the village. Yet there is no mention of indiscriminate killing in the report.
Maung Zarni, a Buddhist and a leading advocate of the Rohingya cause, was concerned about how the interviews were conducted and which authorities acted as gatekeeper.
In Maung Zarni’s view, Amnesty International was assisted by the Ministry of Defence. He said, “This ministry centrally coordinates with Myanmar Ministries of Information, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs and Rakhine State administration.
Without their express say so, no foreign teams can travel to Rakhine state. The Hindu witnesses and survivors from the reported massacre were brought to Sittwe by Myanmar authorities where they were in turn interviewed by Amnesty researchers.”
Zarni’s concerns go to the heart of one of the six points of inquiry/evidence published by Amnesty, which addressed the shifting accounts given by Hindu witnesses in the camps of Bangladesh. Initially, the Hindu refugees blamed the military and Rakhine people for the killings. Then they blamed the Rohingya.
Amnesty’s “Conclusions”: Mere Speculation With Little Substantive Evidence?
Amnesty’s explanation is that pressures and threats in the camps of Bangladesh yielded the inconsistent and shifting witness stories. Yet how do we know that similar pressures were not exerted by the gatekeepers identified by Zarni? “Amnesty’s assertion is clearly more speculation than evidence,” Zarni claims.
Others have stated that the five other categorical conclusions made by Amnesty are similarly untenable. Jacob Goldberg, Journalist and Managing Editor of Coconuts Yangon, a journal produced in Myanmar, said:
Goldberg expressed concerns at the obvious inconclusiveness of the evidence Amnesty presented: “Amnesty’s 6th piece of evidence tells us that one attacker has been identified and confirmed as a Rohingya villager. But how does this rule out a false flag attack? Do we know if this Rohingya individual was involved by choice? Indeed have any of the men-in-black attackers been confirmed as Rohingya?”
Moreover, the black forces occupied a village only two miles from the site of the massacre from the 25 to 31 August (Chikonchori). Amnesty states a Myanmar military helicopter arrived in a targeted village on 27 August in order to make the point that the arrival of the helicopter signals that the military were not there beforehand.
Again, how would this arrival rule out a false flag attack before the 27th? And if the arrival was genuinely for the first time, why would these murderous forces continue to remain in the neighbouring village for several additional days?
On social media, Amnesty’s claimed “careful review of the evidence” was mocked and widely criticised. Nay San Lwin, a well-known Rohingya blogger and activist, expressed exasperation: “I welcome all investigations into human rights abuses in Rakhine state but this was done so inexpertly, it defies explanation.”
Amnesty have ignored recent history. They have failed to see how the Hindu population have become a political football for the Myanmar government and how they are manipulated. This report is a travesty. It could have been written by the Tatmadaw given all its weaknesses. It should be retracted immediately.“
The Quint wrote to Amnesty International with the questions raised in this report. Below is Amnesty International’s response.
Amnesty International’s Response To The Quint
1. Given the numerous documented war crimes against Rohingyas in Rakhine, carried out by the Myanmar government security forces, and the Myanmar government’s apparent proclivity, or rather amenability, with using the Hindu community in the state as a political tool against the Rohingya, can Amnesty International conclusively rule out a possibility that the attack was a false flag attack?
Based on all of the evidence we obtained, Amnesty International was able to conclude that ARSA fighters were responsible for the unlawful killings and abductions of the Hindu community in Kha Maung Seik. When examining the full evidence, we do not believe it is possible that it was a “false flag” attack.
We have also documented in great detail the Myanmar military’s crimes against humanity against the Rohingya, as well as its war crimes in Kachin and northern Shan States.
However, with regards to this specific massacre of Hindu men, women, and children in Kha Maung Seik, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that ARSA fighters are responsible. Ultimately, they should be brought to account, just as there must be justice for those within the Myanmar military who are responsible for crimes against the Rohingya.
2. Additionally, was it the Myanmar Ministry of Defence that enabled access to the witnesses for Amnesty’s report? Given this detail, can Amnesty rule out the possibility, with absolute certainty, that the Hindu survivors interviewed by Amnesty were not specifically chosen to provide the answers that best suited the interests of the Myanmar government?
Amnesty International first interviewed four of the eight adult Hindu survivors from Kha Maung Seik in September 2017, while they were still in Bangladesh. Their accounts at that time were highly consistent with what seven of the Hindu survivors, three of whom we re-interviewed, said in Myanmar in April and May 2018. In Bangladesh, Hindu survivors from Kha Maung Seik told us that the people who killed their family members and abducted them spoke Rohingya; forced them to “convert” in order to have their lives spared; and included men they recognized as Rohingya from the same village. In Bangladesh, we also interviewed Hindu men and women from other villages near Kha Maung Seik, who gave similar descriptions of seeing a combination of men in black with some Rohingya in plainclothes whom they recognized as from their village. All of this came through interviews in Bangladesh with people found at the Hindu-only camp and interviewed with a Bangladeshi translator fluent in both English and the dialect spoken by the Hindu community.
During our research in Rakhine State in April 2018, Amnesty International did not liaise with the Ministry of Defense. We had authorization from Rakhine State officials to be in central Rakhine State, but that was the extent of our engagement with the authorities. To interview Hindu survivors, family members of those who were killed, and leaders of the local Hindu community, Amnesty International worked with a trusted individual who has no affiliation with the Myanmar government, military, or authorities more generally. We also interviewed individuals from other ethnic communities as part of our wider research on the crisis. As is our practice for research on Myanmar and elsewhere around the world, interviews were conducted in private, with only the interviewee, Amnesty delegates, and interpreters present.
Ultimately, we interviewed all eight Hindu adult survivors. There was no selection of specific survivors, as we were able to interview each one separately and privately, either in Bangladesh, in Myanmar, or both. Given the consistency of what the Hindu survivors told Amnesty International both in Bangladesh and in Myanmar; the consistency of their accounts with the accounts of witnesses who saw ARSA fighters in different villages across northern Rakhine State, particularly on the morning of 25 August, as the attacks were launched; and the corroboration from other pieces of evidence, including the forensic review of the photographs, the evidence overwhelmingly points to ARSA fighters as responsible for the massacre in Kha Maung Seik.
3. Amnesty’s report mentions that the testimony of the survivors, who were interviewed multiple times, were inconsistent, often contradicting their own previous accounts. The report chalks this up to being “largely explained by the pressures and threats to personal safety that they faced while in Bangladesh.” The testimonies, however, became more uniform after they returned to Myanmar. Does Amnesty believe with absolute certainty that the Myanmar government could not have briefed survivors during the process of their repatriation to Myanmar, perhaps providing an account that all of them could provide with consistency?
As answered above, Amnesty International first interviewed Hindu survivors from Kha Maung Seik in Bangladesh in mid-September 2017, three weeks before they were repatriated to Myanmar. From the beginning, they said to us that the people responsible for the massacre spoke the Rohingya dialect; forced the women to “convert” to in order to have their lives spared; and included specific individuals whom the survivors were able to recognize as Rohingya who lived in the village tract. The survivors provided names and other biographical data of those individual perpetrators, one of whom we have been able to separately confirm is a Rohingya resident of Kha Maung Seik.
As a result, it is inaccurate to say that the Hindu survivors only identified ARSA or Rohingya militants as the perpetrators after being repatriated to Myanmar and having interaction with the Myanmar authorities. As our report details, the Hindu survivors identified another perpetrator group—namely, ethnic Rakhine—primarily in the first days after being abducted and taken to Bangladesh, while they were still being forced to live with their abductors. After a video surfaced of the women in Kutupalong camp, the Hindu community on both sides of the border mobilized to move them from that area to a Hindu-only camp. While still in Bangladesh, they began to then identify the perpetrators as ARSA or as Rohingya militants both in interviews with Amnesty International and with the media.
Our conclusion that ARSA was responsible came from dozens of interviews on both sides of the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, combined with other, corroborating evidence. It is not possible that the Myanmar government could have been behind the totality of the evidence—obtained across time, in both countries, and with a wide cross-section of interviewees—that allowed Amnesty International to come to its conclusion.
4. Amnesty uses testimony of multiple witnesses who claimed, “seeing a core group of fighters in black, often with their faces covered except for their eyes,” akin to ARSA fighters, as the basis for conclusively stating that ARSA was behind the attack. If the massacre, was indeed a false flag attack, couldn’t the attackers be dressed in the colours of the ARSA? Is Amnesty stating that it would be impossible for others to wear black masks to appear like ARSA forces, in line with the false flag attack theory?
Other villagers in and around Kha Maung Seik described to Amnesty International seeing an attack earlier that same morning of 25 August on a Myanmar border police post in the village tract—one of the coordinated attacks on security force posts that ARSA launched across northern Rakhine State that day. The attackers of the police post were described as men in black who had their faces covered, brandishing swords.
Only hours later, in the same village tract, attackers fitting the same description participated in rounding up and massacring Hindu men, women, and children. Those attackers in black were also consistently described as being joined by people in normal dress, their faces visible, who were recognized as Rohingya men from Kha Maung Seik village. They were described as speaking the Rohingya dialect. They were described as forcing the Hindu survivors to “convert” to Islam in order to have their lives spared. And, several days later, the same people who attacked the Hindu in Kha Maung Seik took the abducted women with them to Bangladesh. When taken together, that evidence collectively leads to one logical conclusion: that the perpetrators of the Kha Maung Seik massacre, including the men in black, were ARSA fighters.
5. The fourth piece of evidence presented by Amnesty, based on its own forensic analyses, states conclusively that the bodies of victims discovered in mass graves were killed and buried in that area around 25 August 2017, the date of the reported attack. Again, does this prove that ARSA was behind the attack?
During the accusations and counteraccusations made around this incident, there have been claims made that the bodies that were uncovered were not from 25 August 2017. Amnesty International sought the analysis of a forensic expert to determine whether the level of decomposition was or was not consistent with having been killed and buried on that day. The expert determined that it was. The expert also identified things in the photographs—including blindfolds and specific wounds—that were consistent with the testimonies of the Hindu survivors, providing corroboration for those testimonies.
We came to our conclusion that ARSA fighters were behind the attack based on the totality of the evidence we have obtained. The forensic analysis was one part of that evidentiary base, as it allowed us to corroborate the date of the unlawful killings and aspects of the testimonies of the women who survived. We did not rely only on the photos and forensic analysis for our conclusion, just as we have not we have not relied only on photographs, videos, and forensic analysis when documenting and reporting on the Myanmar military’s crimes against the Rohingya.
6. Additionally, Amnesty mentions the arrival of a reinforcements, a Myanmar military helicopter, in the area on 27 August as the basis for stating, beyond a doubt, that Myanmar military forces weren't in control of the area on the date of the attack. How does this prove that Myanmar security forces weren’t in control of the area before this display of “arriving in the area”?
The Hindu survivors consistently described to Amnesty International that, after the massacre on 25 August, ARSA fighters who had perpetrated the massacre held the women together in an area of the village. The perpetrators continued to hold the women there until 27 August, when a military helicopter and other reinforcements arrived to Kha Maung Seik. At that point, the ARSA fighters who had abducted and were holding the women said that they all had to leave—that it was no longer safe to be in Kha Maung Seik. The perpetrators then took the women to Bangladesh.
People who Amnesty International interviewed separately, and who were present in another part Kha Maung Seik village tract during this same period, also told us about the helicopter’s arrival on 27 August. They said that it was around that time that the military first came to Kha Maung Seik in the period after the 25 August attacks. Our research indicates a similar pattern in other parts of northern Rakhine State in the days immediately after the 25 August attacks. The local border police units were at times unable to control the situation; the military were then moved to the area as reinforcements, and soldiers responded with a campaign of violence against the Rohingya—including killings, rapes, and burning of homes—that we have documented extensively in previous reports.
When taken together, it’s clear that the military’s arrival in force on 27 August precipitated the perpetrators of the Kha Maung Seik to leave the area and to take the Hindu survivors with them to Bangladesh. Prior to that, the perpetrators felt safe remaining in the village area. The women were with some of the same perpetrators from when they were taken out of their houses the morning of 25 August, through when the massacre occurred, and then ultimately through being abducted and taken to Bangladesh. Combined with the other evidence we obtained, the conclusion is clear: ARSA fighters were responsible.
(This story was updated to reflect Amnesty International’s response to questions raised in this report)