The military’s investigation into its own conduct in Rakhine is not credible

If there is nothing to hide, there is no reason to keep the door locked.

MUCH HAS been made of the competing narratives around the crisis in Rakhine State.

Many inside Myanmar decry what they see as biased and one-sided reporting in international media, insisting that the country is under threat and that “indigenous” ethnic groups are the real victims in this crisis.

This viewpoint makes little sense to much of the world, which sees a calculated plan to push a persecuted minority group across an international border – and sees a country it says is in denial.

Two recent events, which happened a day apart, illustrated these diametrically opposed worldviews.

On November 12, Sky News released a special report from northern Rakhine State. The crew travelled at night with Bangladeshi fishermen to a beach in Maungdaw, where what appeared to be hundreds, if not thousands of people were camped. Many were starving, apparently on the verge of death. The crew took about 30 adults back across the border, leaving the rest to wait for salvation.

The footage is harrowing. It is also highly significant. Restrictions on access to northern Rakhine mean that we know very little about what is actually happening. This evidence from the ground is hard to refute.

Of course, the video only tells a small part of the story. It does not show the parts of the state where the situation is perhaps less desperate. It does not explain how more than 200 villages have been burned. It does not examine the responsibility that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army bears for recent events.

But it does show that, more than two months after the August 25 attacks, there were still people starving on a beach in northern Rakhine State. That is a worrying sign that raises many questions.

Why are they on a beach rather than in their villages? Why has the government not provided any assistance?

A day after the Sky News report, the Tatmadaw True News Information Team released a statement on the military’s investigation into allegations of abuses in northern Rakhine State.

The results are quite a contrast with the Sky News report. No loss of innocent life. No abuses. Not even collateral damage when the Tatmadaw fought off ARSA attackers.

It is hard to take the outcome seriously. In such a highly charged atmosphere, it’s very unlikely that even the best-trained soldiers would have been able to maintain total discipline, let alone avoid making a single mistake.

Although the investigation team claimed to have interviewed more than 3,200 villages, the majority Muslim, the circumstances in which these interviews took place is unclear. Were they group interviews? In which areas of northern Rakhine were they conducted?

While this context is important – and not given in the True News Information Team statement – in another way it is inconsequential.

An investigation by the Tatmadaw into the conduct of its own soldiers could not be credible. For a start, given the history of persecution at the hands of the military, it’s inconceivable that a Muslim villager would feel empowered to speak up about abuses to a serving officer. What reason would they have to believe that it would change anything for the better?

There’s another reason the details don’t matter. The outcome will be – has been – accepted uncritically by much of the population. Few will contest the Tatmadaw’s version of events. Shift the context slightly, though – to, say, the conduct of soldiers in Kachin State – and there would have been howls of outrage domestically.

Once again, Frontier calls on the government and military to cooperate with the United Nations Fact Finding Mission. Allow independent media into northern Rakhine State. Grant access to humanitarian groups so they can support those who have been displaced by the conflict and may be starving, on the brink of death.

If there is nothing to hide, there is no reason to keep the door locked.

This editorial was published in the November 23 issue of Frontier.

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