COX's BAZAR - I was standing on Bangladeshi territory staring at the hills of Myanmar when word got around there were visitors in the village. The locals crowded around, trying to tell my translator and I what they had witnessed. Five Rohingya Muslims who were shot by Myanmar soldiers were buried in this village, they said.
Show me the graves, I asked. They led me uphill, motioning me to remove my shoes out of respect for the dead as we reached the plot of freshly plowed earth. The graves were unmarked. Trying to describe the bodies, one villager fished out his mobile phone. That’s how I found myself looking at the photograph of an angry, gaping hole blown into a dead person’s temple.
Keyboard warriors on both sides of this deadly Rohingya crisis know the drill when confronted with something they don’t want to believe: Doubt. Challenge. And dismiss it as propaganda. One only needs to wade briefly into social media to see the depth of polarisation, and the ferocity with which Burmese are defending actions against the Rohingya, who are reviled as illegal “Bengali” migrants imported by British colonial administrators, and now branded as terrorists.
On Aug 25, a ragtag militant group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked 30 police posts and an army base. Security forces swept across northern Rakhine state. Over half a million Rohingya fled across the border to Bangladesh in one month, while 30,000 ethnic Rakhines and other ethnic groups were displaced within the state.
Whatever that happened in between has been the subject of intense scrutiny by journalists barred from independent access to the area, and trying to piece together the picture from government-controlled tours as well as testimonies from the refugees now seeking shelter in Bangladesh.
In the absence of impartial investigation, conspiracy theories are proliferating. A Rohingya man, for example, even suggested to me that ARSA was created by the ethnic Burmese majority to destroy the Rohingya.
One of the most striking things about this crisis is how Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who heads Myanmar’s powerful and autonomous military, received so little global attention when the Western media obsessed over the initial silence of Nobel prize-winning leader Aung San Suu Kyi about atrocities committed in Rakhine state.
The other intriguing aspect is how a nation which rallied behind Ms Suu Kyi’s political party in a decisive vote against military dominance merely two years ago (2015), is now putting up so little challenge to the soldiers’ narrative that they are merely defending the country’s sovereignty.
The backstory is understandably complex. While Muslims have long lived in Rakhine state, large numbers were introduced under colonial rule. Tens of thousands of people from both sides have died in waves of communal violence between the ethnic Rakhines and Rohingya over the past century. And ARSA’s emergence has coincided with regional panic over jihadist terrorism.
But there is mounting evidence that grave physical harm has been inflicted on large numbers of people. Around Shapuri Dip in Cox’s Bazar, a common landing site for those fleeing to Bangladesh, scores of Rohingya women in niqab sit on the edge of the pavement, hoping for aid from passing locals. Some wear blank, exhausted expressions, while one grabs my arm while whispering her plea.
Observers have noted how Rohingya women, fearing sexual assault, were quick to flee across the border at the first hint of crackdown. Medical staff treating raped Rohingya women told Reuters they saw signs that the women’s genitals were intentionally cut, and that they were penetrated with firearms.
Rape and sexual violence are not a new weapons of war in Myanmar. They have featured in the military’s long running campaigns against armed groups from ethnic minorities like the Shans and Kachins. Tellingly, the landmark 2015 ceasefire agreement specifically stated that the military and eight ethnic armed organisation signatories are to avoid raping or sexually violating women and children.
Yet Myanmar nationalists have responded to the Rohingya rape reports by displaying images of what Naypyitaw says are 45 Hindus who were massacred and dumped in mass graves by ARSA.
The point is, our concern should not be about which side committed a worse atrocity, but the fact that an atrocity took place.
While there is little faith in ARSA’s denials that it targeted civilians, there are no winners in this toxic propaganda war.
Civilians from all sides ultimately bear the cost.