In Myanmar, signs the Rohingya ever existed are being erased in campaign of ‘removal and replacement’
- Another effect of the construction boom is the destruction of physical evidence that could be useful in a future tribunal
- Médecins Sans Frontières estimates at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed between August 25 and September 24 2017
All along the rutted road running from Inn Din village to Maungdaw town in northern Rakhine state, the blackened, headless trunks of palm trees punctuate the lush landscape. A year after Myanmar’s military launched a campaign of murder, rape, and arson to drive out the Rohingya, the charred trees are the only visible reminders that the stateless, Muslim population once lived there. Soon, even these may be erased.
In Inn Din, as in other parts of Rakhine state, the Myanmar government is demolishing areas where thousands of Rohingya lived before fleeing to Bangladesh. Bulldozers and backhoes are parked beside new, blue-roofed homes, built by a government agency chaired by state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.
During a government-organised media tour of northern Rakhine state late last month, Inn Din village administrator Kyaw Soe Moe said the new homes would soon be occupied by “Rakhine, Chin, Bamar, and Hindu people from other parts of the country”.
According to a UN fact-finding mission, whose report last month called for Myanmar’s military leaders to be prosecuted for genocide, the purpose of the bulldozing and construction is “the removal of the Rohingya and all traces of them and their replacement with non-Rohingya”.
Another effect of the construction boom is the destruction of physical evidence that could be useful in a future tribunal. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) estimates at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed between 25 August and 24 September 2017, but fewer than 100 bodies have been uncovered, and the Myanmar government has blamed Rohingya insurgents for all but 10 of the killings.
“It’s a big question I ask myself – where are all the dead bodies?” said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which employs local networks to document abuses in Rakhine state. “A year later, how will we find out? If we find bones, how will we know how or when they were killed, or whether they were killed at all?”
As the past is bulldozed, the future chances of a Rohingya return look bleak. On the ground, efforts to erase their historical presence appear to be succeeding. Since Myanmar signed an UN agreement in June to repatriate more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees, the government has come no closer to fulfilling this obligation. UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said the agency “does not believe that conditions are currently in place in Myanmar for voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees”.
Kyaw Soe Moe, the administrator of Inn Din, said: “I don’t think the Muslims will come back. No one wants the terrorists to come back.”
The destruction of Rohingya lives has been accompanied by the erasure of their stories. This year, Inn Din gained infamy when a Reuters investigation revealed that on September 2, 2017, soldiers, police, and Rakhine Buddhist villagers massacred 10 Rohingya men and boys. The revelation was followed by the conviction of seven soldiers for murder, as well as the imprisonment of the two journalists who broke the story – Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone.
This, however, is not the story Inn Din residents tell today. Khin Than Yee, 52, a Rakhine Buddhist whose home lies in a quiet corner of the village, described how she believed last year’s violence began.
“The Muslim community had been planning to attack the village for a long time,” she said. “Two Muslims killed the father of [Rakhine Buddhist villager] Tun Aye, and after that, they began shouting and chanting from the top of their mosque and burned their own homes.”
Her account bears little resemblance to testimonies shared by Rohingya refugees with the UN fact-finding mission and international media. Her reference to the father of Tun Aye repeats the military’s claim that Rohingya insurgents killed a Rakhine resident of Inn Din on August 25, 2017, which allegedly sparked the violence that culminated in the massacre a week later. According to the fact-finding mission, there was no attack by Rohingya insurgents in Inn Din village that day.
When asked about the massacre. Khin Than Yee grew impatient, pounding the floor as she said: “Why would Rakhines kill Muslims? Muslims kill Rakhines 100 times more often than Rakhines kill Muslims. Rakhine people are kind.”
Khin Than Yee’s incredulity mimics the reflexes of Myanmar’s leaders. In her first public address on the Rohingya refugee crisis in September 2017, while people were still streaming across the border to escape military violence, Aung San Suu Kyi infamously said: “We want to find out why this exodus is happening.”
Persistent as they may be, efforts to sow doubt about the facts will not offer any refuge, say investigators and legal experts. Christopher Sidoti, a member of the UN fact-finding mission, said he and his colleagues were able to collect enough witness and victim evidence to compile pre-prosecution briefs, which could one day be used by prosecutors.
“The [land] clearance is certainly destroying evidence, including of probable graves and sites of burning bodies, but it does not prevent accountability because of the great mass of other evidence,” Sidoti said.
An “independent mechanism” has also been set up by the UN human rights council to collect evidence for a future tribunal. Unlike the fact-finding mission, which focused on evidence that crimes occurred and were systemic, the independent mechanism will focus on collecting “linkage” evidence, which links individuals to specific crimes.
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Kingsley Abbot from the International Commission of Jurists said linkage evidence included “documentary records, statements suspects have made, including on social media, and the command structures of security forces”. Abbot said destroying evidence may leave Myanmar’s leaders more vulnerable, because it is treated as a separate offence.
A case against Myanmar’s leaders will not come about quickly. The independent mechanism has yet to begin its work. But when it does, it may reveal that by destroying graves, Myanmar’s leaders have dug holes for themselves.