By EMANUEL STOAKES and BEN DUNANT | FRONTIER
YANGON — The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, headed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has sent United Nations agencies and at least one foreign aid group working in Myanmar weblinks to a recent film by US national Mr Rick Heizman that claims Rakhine State is the target of an Islamic plot to destroy Buddhism.
The ministry sent the film, which also claims that Rohingya militants ordered their people to torch their own houses before fleeing to Bangladesh, to several UN agencies operating in Myanmar by email and without comment, sources inside the world body and the humanitarian community told Frontier on condition of anonymity.
A UN-commissioned fact-finding report into alleged human rights abuses in Myanmar, published in full on Tuesday, referenced the email in a footnote to its recommendation that “a credible government response should begin with its own officials refraining from using hateful and divisive rhetoric”.
The footnote stated that, on August 13, “the International Organizations Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent an email to various United Nations agencies in Myanmar sharing the links to four videos about Rakhine State and the August 2017 events. The videos contain anti-Muslim/ anti-Rohingya messages.”
The report noted, “It is highly significant that the Ministry headed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi took the initiative of sharing such videos with the United Nations.”
Mr Stanislav Saling, spokesperson for the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar, told Frontier, “We can confirm that several UN offices received this message on 13 August 2018 from an email address that is usually used for official communication by the government.”
The foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment on their motivations for sending links to the film.
Key material in the four-part documentary, “Arakan: Ancient Buddhist Kingdom Endangered by Jihad”, was drawn from interrogations of Rohingya Muslims suspected of being members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
The film links the ARSA militant group, which launched attacks on more than 30 security posts in northern Rakhine State prior to an army crackdown that drove 700,000 Rohingya Muslims into neighbouring Bangladesh, to the threat posed by “encroaching Islamic forces” that wish to “annihilate [the ethnic Rakhine community] and all other non-Muslims and destroy the deeply-rooted indigenous Buddhist culture, and even Buddhism itself.”
Heizman told Frontier he obtained the interrogation material on a trip to Myanmar in October last year. He returned to Myanmar in January this year to shoot footage for his documentary, and was granted extensive access to northern Rakhine State.
Independent journalists, over the last year, have only been allowed into the area on chaperoned government trips, and humanitarian access has been tightly restricted. The three-member UN Fact-Finding Mission, which delivered its report on Tuesday, was banned altogether from Myanmar.
In a statement Heizman uploaded to Twitter on December 13 last year, he wrote that he had “asked the proper authorities in [the Rakhine State capital] Sittwe, if I could get the interrogations of the captured ARSA affiliated militants / killers / terrorists. The answer was yes.”
When asked by Frontier, Heizman refused to confirm the exact provenance of the documents cited in the film, but added “just recently I asked for more, there are more than 100 that I can get.”
Asked about his relationship with the Myanmar foreign ministry, he said “no comment”.
In the film’s narration, Heizman says, “As you can see the prisoners tell of, and name, the Mawlawis [religious leaders] and that the Mawlawis and the ARSA leaders are the leaders, planners, commanders and authorities that ordered the villagers to burn their homes and to flee to Bangladesh.”
The receipt of confidential materials has not exposed Heizman to legal repercussions in Myanmar, unlike Reuters reporters Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, who were sentenced on September 3 by a Yangon judge to seven years each in prison under the Official Secrets Act for possessing “secret” documents relating to Rakhine. During the trial, a police witness testified that a senior police commander had ordered their arrest using planted confidential papers.
Mr Phil Robertson, deputy Asian director of advocacy group Human Rights Watch, told Frontier the foreign ministry’s forwarding of Heizman’s film “is clear evidence of the civilian government’s active role in propagating the most crude sorts of anti-Rohingya propaganda.”
“Aung San Suu Kyi and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that she leads are playing a central role in devising the narrative to cover up the crimes against humanity and possible genocide. This is really the final blow to any remaining belief that Suu Kyi and the [foreign ministry] are somehow trying to moderate the Tatmadaw and the anti-Muslim hardliners in Myanmar,” he said.
Asked about the Fact-Finding Mission’s report, which documents substantial abuses by the military against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar and recommends that senior military officers be tried at the International Criminal Court for alleged genocide and crimes against humanity, Heizman told Frontier it was “another report that belongs in the trash”. He accused UN investigators of ignoring ARSA atrocities against Hindus and members of the Mro ethnic group in Rakhine.
He said many in the world are “trying to force the country, the people, and the army all to kowtow, and it is having devastating effects on all”.
Heizman, an ethnomusicologist living in San Francisco who has visited Myanmar over several decades, regularly engages in anti-Rohingya and broader anti-Muslim speech on Facebook and Twitter, and has developed a following among Myanmar nationalists frustrated with sympathetic coverage of the Rohingya’s plight in international media.
Heizman’s heated rhetorical style and frequent use of capital letters over entire paragraphs in online posts has not deterred the Myanmar government from endorsing his explicitly anti-Muslim work in previous communication with foreign governments and organisations.
A government enquiry into Buddhist-Muslim “sectarian violence” in Rakhine State in 2012 cited an article by Heizman, “History, Issues and Truth in Arakan/Rakhine State”, in its 2013 report. Heizman’s article presents what it calls the “basic truth” that “the Buddhist Rakhine people are under a real and brutal campaign to seize their centuries old cultural homeland and turn it into an Islamic State”. This is consistent with the message presented in his recent film.
In October 2017, when the exodus of Rohingya into Bangladesh was at its height, the Myanmar embassy in London sent a British parliamentary committee “written evidence” on “recent development[s] in Rakhine State”. This two-page document referenced another article authored by Heizman that argued that Buddhists in Myanmar had “a very rational fear” of Islam.
In January this year, Heizman delivered a talk at the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Yangon, a foreign policy think tank led by former Myanmar diplomats, in which he presented his work as a corrective to international media and human rights narratives that highlight alleged atrocities committed against the Rohingya.
Heizman had previously lobbied in the US against military rule in Myanmar. Asked whether he was concerned his current work could help the military, known in Myanmar as the Tatmadaw, he told Frontier it was “not the same Tatmadaw. I am aware more than just about anybody of the history of [the] Tatmadaw. I am not buddies with them – but I see reality”.