Aung San Suu Kyi once called for a free press. Now, the dead are used for fake news

As the Rohingya crisis escalates, the state of Myanmar is silencing the media – and the people who dare to talk to them

‘The government is targeting vulnerable citizens all over again. But this time, it is orchestrating its own version of events through social media.’ Photograph: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA

In December last year, after the Myanmar security forces had been accused of deadly attacks in the state of Rakhine, the government allowed a press trip to the area. Such visits are rare; this three-day, state-guided trip was allowed only after pressure from human rights groups and the UN to investigate allegation of atrocities against Rohingya people.

Thirteen journalists toured the area, closely watched by security forces. Locals were reluctant to talk from fear of retaliation. But on 21 December Shuna Mia, a 41-year-old Rohingya man from the township of Maungdaw, bravely decided to speak out. According to activists who have seen footage of his interview, he said that people in his community had been raped and killed by security forces.

Later that night, villagers say, a group of people went to Shuna’s house. His family grew worried, and they began to look for him early the next morning.

Around midday, a headless body was found floating in a nearby river. His family identified it as Shuna’s.

A year on, the Myanmar army continues to wage a devastating war against the Rohingya people. Security forces have raped, tortured and killed thousands, and have burned settlements to the ground, including Maungdaw township, where Shuna had lived, and where earlier this week a mass grave was found. The violence has driven more than 600,000 Rohingya people into neighbouring Bangladesh. The UN has branded the military’s actions as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Myanmar has long been a country of media repression and censorship. But Shuna’s death marked the start of a revived effort from the government to quash independent reporting.

Two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were arrested in Yangon last week and are now feared “disappeared”. Myanmar’s ministry of information said the reporters had “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media”. It’s believed they had uncovered photographic evidence of the mass grave in Rakhine state.

As the violence against the Rohingya people intensified, Myanmar authorities and Aung San Suu Kyi also adopted a new tactic: to smear the Rohingya people on social media, and to deny well-documented accusations of crimes against humanity.

‘The day after Shuna Mya was found dead, someone representing the state counsellor posted a photo of a headless body on the office’s Facebook page.’ Photograph: Radio Free Asia

The day after Shuna was found dead, someone representing the state counsellor of Myanmar (Aung San Suu Kyi’s official title) posted a photo of a headless body on the office’s Facebook page, stamped with the words “Truth teller BEHEADED”. The post claimed Shuna had told the media that security forces had not committed rape or arson, and suggested he was killed by “Muslim insurgents” in retaliation. That directly contradicted local reports, activists and Shuna’s family, who believe he was abducted and beheaded by security forces for speaking to journalists.

This was just part of the government’s efforts to discredit Rohingya people. On the same day, the same Facebook account posted photos of Rohingya women who said they had been raped by security forces. The label “FAKE RAPE” dismissed the countless reports of sexual violence .

In 2010, I spent a year working with Amnesty International on its Burma campaign, calling for the release of political prisoners. Part of my work was on the Radios for Burma project, where I supported Amnesty staff as they smuggled 10,000 radio sets into the country’s remote areas. The aim was to amplify independent media for hundreds of thousands of people who had been starved of independent information.

Back then, I saw how limited access to free and fair information was across the country. Seven years on, the government is targeting vulnerable citizens all over again. But this time, it is orchestrating its own version of events through social media. And, worst of all, it is being encouraged by Aung San Suu Kyi, the very woman that the western world once hailed as a champion of freedom of speech.

For decades, Aung San Suu Kyi called for press freedom, and many expected conditions for journalists to improve following her release from house arrest. But as the abuse of the Rohingya people has escalated, she has denounced honest and unbiased press coverage, blaming “terrorists” for “a huge iceberg of misinformation”.

When Shuna’s body was found, several other people from his village who had spoken to the media fled to Bangladesh. “The soldiers murdered my husband in November,” one woman told a reporter. “Weeks after, they raped me before my daughter. My mental pain was unbearable. I wanted the world to know of it.”

Shuna and others risked their lives to reveal what is happening to the Rohingya people. As the crisis continues to escalate, let’s not allow their efforts to be twisted by the Myanmar government, or dismissed as fake news.

(c) 2017 The Guardian