As Signs of a Mass Grave Emerge, Myanmar Cracks Down

A satellite image of the Inn Din village in Rakhine State, Myanmar, on Nov. 10. The military commander said an investigation was underway into “people being killed and buried” in a cemetery there.  Credit DigitalGlobe, via TerraServer

BANGKOK — Two journalists arrested last week in Myanmar had obtained photographs from residents of a village in which, the country’s army chief has said, a mass grave was found. The area is in northern Rakhine State, where a military campaign against Rohingya Muslims has raged for more than three months.

The Reuters reporters U Wa Lone and U Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on Dec. 12 after meeting with police officers in Yangon, the country’s commercial capital.

At the time, Myanmar’s Ministry of Information said the journalists had tried to illegally procure information about Rakhine State, where international human-rights monitors say Myanmar’s military has killed and raped thousands of Rohingya. Ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, who compose the state’s ethnic majority, have also been accused of participating in the bloodletting and burning of Rohingya villages.

Three days after the reporters were arrested, five ethnic Rakhine residents of the village of Inn Din, in northern Rakhine, were detained, including the principal of the local school and three teachers.

A relative of one of the detained teachers said the five were arrested because they gave some photos and documents to the reporters from Reuters. The person, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, did not specify what the photos showed.

On Monday, a post on the Facebook account of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief in Myanmar, said that the military was carrying out an investigation into unidentified “people being killed and buried” in a cemetery in Inn Din.

“Strong legal action will be taken if any member of security forces are involved,” the Facebook post said.

During the wave of arson that has spread across the region since late August, many houses in Inn Din, an ethnically mixed community, were destroyed. But satellite evidence collected by Amnesty International showed that only Rohingya neighborhoods in Inn Din had been razed by fire.

The relative of the detained Inn Din villager accused the government of wanting to hide the evidence shown in the documents.

U Myint Kyaw, a member of the independent Myanmar Press Council, said he believed the arrests of the reporters and the Rakhine villagers were connected.

The Reuters journalists U Wa Lone and U Kyaw Soe Oo, in a photograph released by Myanmar’s Ministry of Information after their arrest. Credit Myanmar Ministry of Information, via Reuters

Myanmar officials say that the office of the president, which is part of the country’s civilian leadership, has authorized the police to proceed with the case against the reporters.

“Now it will be hard to stop the case against the journalists,” Mr. Myint Kyaw said.

“The government should have done an investigation first,” into the existence of the mass grave, he added.

A week after the reporters’ arrest, high-level members of Myanmar’s civilian government said they had no further information about why the two were arrested.

“Regarding this case, we don’t actually know what’s going on,” said U Pe Myint, the country’s minister of information. “We can only do something when we know what’s going on.”

Reuters declined to comment on the specifics of what its reporters were pursuing.

“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are journalists who perform a crucial role in shedding light on news of global interest, and they are innocent of any wrongdoing,” Stephen J. Adler, president and editor in chief of Reuters, said in a statement.

Mr. Wa Lone and Mr. Kyaw Soe Oo were charged under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. The colonial-era law stipulates up to 14 years in jail for offenders. Two police officers were also arrested when the journalists were detained.

Both journalists had reported on the exodus of an estimated 650,000 Rohingya Muslims from northern Rakhine State to Bangladesh during the past three and a half months. While the Rohingya have been persecuted for decades by the Myanmar military, the latest campaign against the Muslim minority began after Rohingya insurgents attacked Myanmar security posts in late August.

With the exception of carefully controlled government-led trips, local and foreign reporters have been barred from visiting northern Rakhine. Reuters has published witness accounts from the region provided by people that the news agency did not identify by name.

Mr. Kyaw Soe Oo is from Rakhine, and Mr. Wa Lone reported from the region.

Doctors Without Borders estimated last week that at least 6,700 Rohingya, including 730 children, had died in violence in Myanmar in the month after the crackdown began.