Getting the full picture of the Rakhine crisis

At best, the government’s narrative of the shocking violence in Rakhine has been put in serious jeopardy. At worst…

On September 7, one of the key planks of the government’s narrative on Rakhine State was put in serious jeopardy. Some have said it was simply proven incorrect.

It is the accusation that Rakhine State’s Muslims have been responsible for all of the arson taking place in the state. Government officials have explicitly stated that Muslims are burning their own homes. The reasons typically given for doing this are they either want the fire to spread to nearby Rakhine homes, or that they want to lay the blame on the military or other groups.

These are arguments that many international observers have had trouble accepting.

Nobody disputes that arson is taking place. The government puts the number of homes destroyed at almost 7,000; satellite imagery obtained by Human Rights Watch also shows extensive destruction. This is destruction on a large scale: villages once home to 10,000 or more people have been razed.

But the insistence that only Muslims are responsible has been a major point of contention throughout the Rakhine conflict, right back to the outbreak of communal conflict in 2012.

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How was this narrative challenged? When journalists on a government-arranged trip were taken to an abandoned Muslim village in Maungdaw Township on September 7, homes had recently been set alight. Yet the only people present were non-Muslims – apparently ethnic Rakhine – and police. One ethnic Rakhine person confirmed to some journalists he had burned the houses and received assistance from police. One reported even seeing a group of non-Muslims burning a house.

The same day, photos purporting to show Muslims burning their houses were also quickly and comprehensively discredited.

This is not to say that Muslims – and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in particular – are not responsible for some, or even much of the arson in Rakhine. But the government has been insisting that they are responsible for all of the destruction. What seemed implausible now appears impossible. 

The government’s strategy of flat-out denial is horribly flawed. All it takes is one exception to prove you wrong and seriously undermine your credibility as a source of accurate information. You’d think it would have learned after it said security forces were not responsible for any abuses in Rakhine State after October 2016, and video soon emerged of police officers kicking local Muslims.

But there’s a bigger issue at play here. This approach presents the conflict in Rakhine State in the most simplistic, black and white terms. The message is simple: Muslims are always the bad guys. You only have to interview Muslims in Rakhine State, as Frontier has done, to get a much more nuanced picture of how they feel about ARSA.

One thing that most of us should be able to agree on, at least, is the complexity of the present conflict – in fact, this is the common complaint about international reporting on Rakhine State. For the government to be sending the message that the situation is anything but complicated is irresponsible, and will make the path to reconciliation even more difficult.

The September 7 incident also highlights the importance of media organisations being granted access to conflict areas. Consider if a Muslim refugee had related seeing houses torched by Rakhine youths or security forces: It would have been easy to dismiss such accusations as lacking in evidence. When they are eyewitness accounts from independent observers, it’s much more difficult to dispute.

But of course, the reality is that many will still dismiss these first-hand accounts that challenge the government narrative as biased – just as some will try to absolve ARSA of any blame for current events.

Reporting on Rakhine State has always been a fraught business. The polarisation is such that it has been extremely difficult for media organisations to produce content that appears objective to the majority of readers. In the wake of the August 25 attacks, it has become virtually impossible.

Some on both sides have accused Frontier of bias, but it’s easy to form an opinion based on one article, a photo, or even a few words in a headline. We urge all readers to view our coverage as a package. Since the August 25 attacks, we’ve covered spot news, attended government press conferences, sent reporters to Rakhine State, and kept abreast of the international dimensions.

Our job is not to give readers information that simply confirms their pre-existing views. We believe that accurate and insightful reporting – particularly when it touches on sensitive issues – is important for the future of the country. It’s only through stimulating difficult discussions about the conflict in Rakhine State that we will all be able to move forward.

This editorial appears in the September 14 issue of Frontier. 

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