SPEAKING to reporters in her office at Sun Kyun Kwang University in Seoul on Sept 8, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee said more than 1,000 people could already have been killed in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, mostly members of the Rohingya Muslim minority. This is twice the number given by the Myanmar government to the media.
Over the last four weeks, some 500,000 people, mostly Rohingya civilians, have fled across the border, seeking sanctuary in Bangladesh, overcrowding the refugee camps.
According to Lee, it was highly possible that the government had “underestimated the numbers”. Unfortunately, she cannot verify the actual number because she has “no access” to the region. She is, nevertheless skeptical of the authorities’ claims that the Rohingya were burning their own houses.
Pointing out that nearby Buddhist villages were untouched and it was the rainy season, she said: “If you have got people with guns going after you, and you are trying to escape, and it is damp, how easily can you set your own house on fire?”
Expressing her fears, she said: “It is going to be one of the worst disasters that the world and Myanmar have seen in recent years.” We should consider this report by the UN rapporteur, alongside a statement not too long ago by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s de facto leader that international media reports of the atrocities committed against the Rohingya in Rakhine state as just “fake news”.
According to the BBC, Suu Kyi told Turkey’s President Erdogan that “fake news” had made the situation worse. She said “a huge iceberg of misinformation” had created “a lot of problems between different communities with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists”.
The BBC report stated that, by Sept 5, there had been more than 1.2 million tweets about the humanitarian crisis. The big problem, according to the BBC’s southeast Asia correspondent Jonathan Head, is: “Much of what had been tweeted is wrong”. The correspondent said many of these pictures come from “other crises around the world”.
However, according to BBC’s Burmese Service reporter Tin Htar Swe, much of the blame for Suu Kyi’s “fake news” could be laid at the Myanmar government’s door. The “fake news” was “generated because the government is not allowing media access to the troubled areas,” she said. If the Myanmar government had allowed the UN or human rights bodies to visit the place to find out what was happening, this “misinformation” would not have occurred.
This latest humanitarian crisis in Myanmar erupted on Aug 25 when “Rohingya militants”attacked police posts, causing the Myanmar military to mount a counter-offensive operation. The military maintained that it was fighting against Rohingya militants who were attacking civilians.
However, according to the Rohingya families who had fled to Bangladesh, Myanmar security forces, at times backed by armed Buddhist civilians, had burned their villages and opened fire on the civilian population.
The allegation of atrocities was denied by Colonel Phoe Tint, Myanmar’s Minister in charge of Border Security in Rakhine. He said the destruction of the villages was a deliberate strategy adopted by the Rohingya militants, aimed at forcing the Muslim population to seek sanctuary in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, Bangladeshi sources said that Myanmar military had been laying landmines along the border.
In response to this revelation, a spokesman for Suu Kyi told reporters: “Who can surely say those mines were not laid by the terrorists?”
The fake news defence used by Suu Kyi has not gone down well in Indonesia, where thousands gathered at Myanmar’s embassy in a show of solidarity with the Rohingya Muslims. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi travelled to Myanmar to meet Suu Kyi to find a solution to end the bloodshed. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was also in Myanmar recently to talk to Suu Kyi.
In recent days, protests and demonstrations in front of Myanmar embassy buildings took place in many cities, including New Delhi, Moscow, Berlin, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur. The scene in Kuala Lumpur on Sept 8 should remind Malaysians of a similar demonstration in November last year. History tends to repeat itself and if the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar is not resolved this time, it will most probably happen again.
South China Morning Post reported, on Sept 6, that more than 6,000 homes in Rakhine state had been torched, causing the Rohingya people to flee to Bangladesh.
The day before, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke of “the risk of ethnic cleansing and regional destabilisation”.
So, who do we believe — a Nobel Prize winner or a UN rapporteur?
The writer formerly served the
Attorney-General’s Chambers before he left for practice, the corporate sector and, then, the academia