As armed conflict escalates in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State following attacks by ethnic Rohingya militants against state security forces, the war of words is raging in state media, at military press conferences and over social media.
The nature of truth in Rakhine State has always been hotly contested, with hyperbolic narratives constructed by all sides often in a state-imposed void of access for independent media or researchers to ascertain hard facts.
The newly emergent armed group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) staged armed attacks on an estimated 30 police outposts and an army regimental base in the Rakhine Townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Yathedaung on August 25, timed to coincide with the previous day’s release of the long-anticipated Kofi Annan-led Rakhine Advisory Commission report.
Twelve policemen, a soldier and civilian officials were casualties in the original attack, with state media estimating over 100 suspected militants were also killed. The Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, deployed hundreds more troops to the area and resumed a violent ‘area clearance operation’, similar to the one mounted after October 9, 2016 attacks by Rohingya militants on border police outposts.
In the last week, the International Organization on Migration (IOM) has estimated over 20,000 Rohingya have crossed into Bangladesh, joining an estimated 87,000 who fled over the past several months. Several thousand ethnic Rakhine, Myanmar, and Mro have been evacuated or fled to the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe, or are internally displaced in the area.
The government alleges that ARSA’s Muslim fighters have attacked several villages and staged massacres of Mro and Hindu people, including the slashing deaths of several children, and have set fire to many Buddhist and Hindu homes. Human Rights Watch released satellite imagery showing extensive arson in the area, with some government officials estimating over 2,500 houses have been torched.
The government quickly designated ARSA a terrorist organization under the hitherto unused Counter-Terrorism Law of 2014. In one of the more curious official statements of recent days, entitled “Warning in Relation with Extremist Terrorists”, the government warned that foreigners may be assisting ARSA and that all references to its members should label them as “extremist terrorists” rather than “insurgents.”
The government and autonomous military have orchestrated a major public relations drive to capitalize on ARSA’s attacks, with press conferences held by the military’s Psychological Warfare Department for defense attaches and media in Naypyitaw. A briefing this week for diplomats and journalists held in Yangon by Minister of Home Affairs Lt-Gen Kyaw Swe and National Security Advisor U Thaung Tun pledged security forces would operate with “maximum restraint.”
State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office’s Information Committee on Rakhine Affairs has maintained an active Facebook page providing updates on events for several months. It was inexplicably renamed simply the ‘Information Committee’ this week. Since August 25, it has produced a series of “Latest News on Rakhine ARSA Extremist Terrorists News”, with a mix of detailed conflict reports on militant attacks, killings, injuries and captured supplies of suspected militant bases.
But photos disseminated by the Information Committee of international relief supplies supposedly captured by militants represented an information war low point. The government has long staged a theater of seizure and display to illustrate insurgent activity in the country, laying out purportedly captured items as evidence of violent plots or attack aftermath, including rows of captured weapons, bullets, jingalees (sharpened bicycle spokes used with a slingshot) and crude pipe bombs.
Yet recent photos posted on the State Counsellor’s Information Committee site showing allegedly captured World Food Program (WFP) sacks, and, absurdly, basic improvised explosive device (IED) pipe bombs allegedly made from aid organization supplies were crudely constructed shams of evidence designed not to convince but inflame domestic sentiment and demonstrate belligerence towards the foreign aid community.
The US Embassy and United Nations have condemned these alarming allegations, made strategically as concerns of a massive humanitarian crisis mount. Given the see-saw of forced migration of Rohingya from Myanmar into Bangladesh for many decades, WFP and other relief agencies have been present in Maungdaw for at least 20 years assisting the local population, often in a near total void of government services.
Finding ostentatiously labelled relief supplies in various areas of Rakhine State is thus not difficult. The government allegations will seriously undermine the humanitarian neutrality of international aid operations, and frustrate the urgently needed resumption of humanitarian assistance for all people in the conflict area, regardless of their ethnicity.
It is unclear how much control Suu Kyi has over this disruptive messaging, and whether presidential spokesman Zaw Htay, who served the same role in the previous military-backed regime, is instead the true driving force. Many observers view Suu Kyi as sidelined by the Tatmadaw’s control over access to Maungdaw and the information emanating from the conflict area.
More analysis is needed on how the military and security forces are managing those information flows, instead of simply denouncing the civilian government. But Suu Kyi as de facto national leader will ultimately have to take responsibility for the official messaging, including the use of racist labels, demonizing of international aid organizations and threats made to the independent media.
There have doubtless been frequent exaggerations and misleading reporting in the international media, influenced by a lack of access and reliable information sources, and the government likely feels besieged by widespread foreign condemnation of its widely reported rights abuses in the area.
Pro-Rohingya social media traffic likewise trades in exaggerations, half-truths and fabricated videos and photos of security force-perpetuated abuses. Once again, establishing the truth behind the violence in northern Rakhine State is hampered by the desperate dissemination of fake news on both sides.
ARSA, too, has pursued a relatively sophisticated public relations strategy for several months, targeting Western journalists on Twitter, releasing statements in English and pushing its moderate message of wanting to live peacefully alongside ethnic Rakhine, while calling for the United Nations to help them end long-standing crimes against humanity against their ethnic brethren.
An ARSA spokesman told Asia Times that its coordinated attacks last week were ‘preemptive’, as the Tatmadaw was planning strikes in the Mayu mountain range against its remote bases and training areas.
This is likely a diversionary tactic, however, as Myanmar security forces had deployed a few hundred troops into the area weeks ago in response to a spike in killings of suspected government informants and the slaughter of several Mro Buddhists in the area, both the suspected work of ARSA.
Military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was beseeched by Rakhine political and religious leaders to augment security in the area in response to the attacks. The ARSA spokesman also told Asia Times that the Rohingya were in “the final stage before full-fledged genocide, so we have to defend our civilian population.”
A government investigation into the post-October 9 violence last year strongly denied any evidence of genocide, a view widely shared internationally. But the one-sided report also ruthlessly dismissed strong evidence of widespread sexual violence, extrajudicial killings and arson attacks in the area by security forces. The callous denial has stoked international frustration and calls for a proper outside independent investigation.
These increasingly corrosive counter-narratives are obstructing not just the establishment of the facts on the ground in Rakhine State, but are shredding the potential for reconciliatory policy solutions to resolve the conflict as it quickly expands to the sum of all fears many have predicted: from grinding repression to all-out war.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst