BANGKOK — Pointing to the ashes of a destroyed village that was once home to dozens of Rohingya Muslim families, the abbot of a nearby Buddhist monastery insisted he knew who had set it ablaze. It was the Rohingya themselves, he said, and there was photographic evidence to prove it.
“I even tried to stop them,” the abbot, Zawtika, told reporters who visited violence-torn northern Rakhine state last week after an explosion of communal violence that has so far compelled a staggering 313,000 Rohingya to flee into neighboring Bangladesh. “I told them not to do that, but it seemed like they wanted to.”
Shortly afterward, a local Buddhist resident who is close to the monk, a man named Maung Maung Htwe, shared photos he said he had taken on his mobile phone that showed several people setting fire to the buildings.
The alleged perpetrators could be clearly seen – too clearly for anyone trying to advance the lie that Rohingya were responsible.
Journalists on the trip recognized two of the people in the photos as Hindus from a nearby public school the government officials had brought them to hours earlier. The school was filled with displaced Hindus who said their own homes had been burned by Muslims. An Associated Press reporter interviewed one of them.
Like the monk, the country’s government contends that Rohingya insurgents have been burning down their own villages in northern Rakhine as they attacked both majority Buddhists and minority Hindus. The Rohingya, meanwhile, say Myanmar security forces and Buddhist mobs have attacked them and razed their homes in a conflict that the government estimates killed close to 400 people.
The latest fighting began after Rohingya insurgents launched a series of attacks Aug. 25 that they have portrayed as an effort to protect their ethnic minority from persecution. The government insists the Rohingya are actually Bangladeshis, though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
The attacks have triggered “clearance operations” by security forces who say they are trying to root out the insurgents, and stirred up a virulent spell of Buddhist nationalism directed against the Rohingya and their perceived supporters on social media.
The violence has also sparked a war pitting the truth against so-called “fake news,” with Myanmar’s government and its supporters taking a page right out of U.S. President Donald Trump’s war on the media.
Even if reporters had not met the two Hindus before viewing video of the fire, the images looked dubious. The women’s hair appeared to be covered in something like tablecloths, in lieu of Muslim headwear.
After a Yangon-based news outlet, Eleven Media Group, published an article showing the burned Rohingya homes in Ka Nyin Tan last week, government spokesman Zaw Htay tweeted a link to it.
“Photos of Bengalis setting fire to their houses!” he said, using a term for the Rohingya often used in Myanmar because it implies they are all from Bangladesh.
After the images began stirring doubt, however, Zaw Htay said the following day that the government was investigating the images and would take action against those who set the fires. He also said police were interrogating the Rakhine man who took the images; the man could not be reached by phone on Monday.
The images showed several people torching the thatched roof of one home. In one of the images, a man in a green-and-blue plaid shirt reaches up to a rooftop, appearing to pour something from a bottle. In another, a woman in an orange-and-white shirt wields a machete.
It was unclear when those images were taken. But pictures recorded at the public school housing displaced Hindus clearly showed the same man and woman, in the same clothes.
The woman – a mother of six who goes by the single name of Hazuli – said before reporters viewed the video of the fire that her family had been attacked by Rohingya. She referred to them using a derogatory word for Muslim that is commonly used in Myanmar.
“When we were about to have our meal, the kalars entered our village and started burning our houses. They were holding machetes and spears and started shouting, ‘We will shower with the Hindu’s blood.’ So we ran away from our houses,” she said. “If there are Muslims, the problems will never end, but if kalars are not here anymore, it will be more peaceful.”
Hazuli could not be reached after photos of the fire were released.
Misinformation has gone both ways. Earlier this month Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, calling for an end to “ethnic cleansing” in Rakhine state, tweeted four photos allegedly from the conflict. He deleted the tweet after it was found most had nothing to do with Myanmar; one showed a Rwandan child crying.
Anti-Rohingya posters tweeted a photo allegedly showing Rohingya militants conducting rifle training; the image was actually from 1971, and showed volunteers training during the nation’s war for independence.
The claim that Rohingya had set fire to their own houses had taken another hit earlier in the same government-organized trip on which journalists met the monk and the Hindu villagers.
The reporters saw Rakhine men with swords walking out of a burning Rohingya village that had been abandoned days earlier. And while they saw smoke rising skyward across the fields in several other locations, they didn’t see a single Rohingya in any of the five destroyed villages they visited.
Allegations that Rohingya are burning their homes have been made in Rakhine state by local Buddhists and government officials ever since a wave of bloody anti-Muslim rioting erupted in 2012. Well over 100,000 Rohingya fled that year, either into Myanmar displacement camps or out of the country, often via dangerous boat journeys.
Officials rarely have offered any explanation as to why an already miserable and impoverished group of people would destroy their own homes and exhaust their meager savings to take treacherous journeys to unknown lands for lives of extreme uncertainty.
Last week, however, Myanmar’s minister of border affairs, Col. Phone Tint, told journalists on the trip that Rohingya insurgents were burning villages because they are routing out informants. They “also want people to be afraid of them and to join them.”
Refugees who have made it to Bangladesh, however, said they believe the fires are part of the military’s effort to purge Rakhine state of Muslims.
More than 6,800 homes have been destroyed in this wave of violence, the government has said, and all but about 200 belonged to Rohingya.
That estimate, however, is several days old. A Rohingya man and a police officer reached Monday in Rakhine said that in at least one village, the fires are still burning.