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Did an armed Rohingya group massacre Hindus in Myanmar?

media Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as members of the Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village, 2 September 2017. Reuters

Rights group Amnesty International published a report on Wednesday blaming a mysterious Rohingya Muslim armed group for mass killings in Myanmar last August, but critics question the report’s conclusions and warn of its similarities to the official version of the Myanmar government.

The massacres in question, in which about a hundred Hindus were killed in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state on 25 August 2017, were first reported last September.

Evidence is based on mass graves and eyewitness accounts of survivors who joined Rohingya Muslims in fleeing to Bangladesh to escape a Myanmar army crackdown.

But testimonies of who was responsible have been inconsistent, with some giving credence to the government position in blaming the armed group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa).

Others did not, though, and some critics of the government have gone so far to claim the massacres were false flag attacks, set up to look like the work of the armed group.

After nine months of research, first in Bangladesh and more recently in accessing some southern parts of Rakhine state, Amnesty International argues it has gathered enough evidence to point the finger at Arsa.

“We’re very aware that the testimonies have at times conflicted with each other to other organisations, but to us, they have largely stayed the same over this time,” says Laura Haigh, who researched and authored the report.

The report offers six arguments of Arsa’s culpability, including corroborating descriptions of attackers and their movements.

“The physical descriptions are largely consistent, and they match the descriptions of Arsa attackers in other parts of Rakhine state on the day during the attacks,” Haigh says.

“All of the women that we spoke to said that they heard the fighters speaking in the Rohingya dialect, which again for us points to the fact that this is the Arsa group,” she continues.

“And we spoke to other villagers who confirmed the military were not in control of this area on the days of these attacks.”

Questions over Amnesty's evidence about Arsa

Critics have questioned the solidity of the rights group’s arguments, saying they are not based on any new evidence.

“Why would you assume that witnesses in Myanmar could talk freely?” asks documentary filmmaker Shafiur Rahman, who has been working with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. “They have changed their stories various times, and why wouldn’t they change their stories under pressure in Myanmar?

“And let’s look at the second point, which is the description of the Arsa fighters. If they are government forces, and the idea was to create a false flag attack, then they would go in as Arsa fighters.”

Little is known about Arsa, its goals and its membership.

Myanmar’s government says Arsa are terrorists supported by Islamists abroad, while the group claims to be defending long-persecuted Rohingya Muslims.

It denied responsibility for the massacres, but did claim responsibility for attacks on security personnel around the same time, which triggered the military crackdown that led some 700,000 Rohingya people to flee into Bangladesh.

“The report lends credibility to the long-held Myanmar government line that the Rohingya represents an existential threat to the Hindus and others in Rakhine state,” Rahman says.

“This feeds into this story about Arsa, this Islamic organization that wants an independent Rakhine state and so on. There’s no evidence for any of this.”

Calls for access to Rakhine state

One thing Amnesty and its critics do agree on is the need for the Myanmar government to open access to Rakhine state to international investigators.

“Our calls in publishing these findings is for that access, we think it is important for international investigators to get up there to establish the full extent of abuses by Arsa and of course crimes against humanity by the military,” Haigh says.

“Ultimately, those responsible for crimes in northern Rakhine state, whether it’s the Myanmar military or whether it’s the armed group Arsa, must be held to account.”

Rahman agrees with the need for access, though sees Amnesty’s call for access all the more reason to question the report.

“What investigation is necessary if you’ve already pinpointed who the culprit was?” he asks.

“I think [the report] was a major mistake, based on a shoddy investigation, based on conclusions which are not categorical, and which really endangers an extremely vulnerable population.”


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