A Rohingya refugee reacts while holding his dead son after crossing the Naf river from Myanmar into Bangladesh in Whaikhyang on Oct. 9, 2017. (Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)
MAUNGDAW, Myanmar — Between 2013 and 2016, I made almost 10 trips to Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state. But none was quite like this one.
After months of waiting, the Myanmar government granted me a seven-day visa to travel to Rakhine as part of a carefully organized media trip. Since violence against the Rohingya last year — which drove more than 700,000 of the Muslim minority to neighboring Bangladesh — foreign media has been all but barred from traveling around the area except on government-led tours held almost every month. A rotating cast of correspondents are selected each time. In late September, it was The Washington Post’s turn.
It was my first time back in Myanmar — and in Rakhine state — in more than two years. I lived in Myanmar in more hopeful times, from 2013 to 2016, as the correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Rakhine state, particularly its northern region where most Rohingya lived, was never easy to get to. Travel authorizations always had to be negotiated.
I remember darting around the Rakhine capital, Sittwe, with the Myanmar reporter I worked with to get a sign-off from multiple authorities — the police, the border guard police, the local government — before heading on hours-long journeys north. Then we would get resistance from boatmen and drivers reluctant to take foreign journalists to Muslim villages. And even when there, it was clear we were always being followed — and never subtly. On one trip, we suspected two men in motorcycles, probably from the notorious intelligence arm of the police, were tailing us. So we’d stop periodically to take photos of the lush scenery. And, of course, they’d stop, too, and pretend that they were looking out over the same green expanse.
Still, we were largely free to go where we wanted and speak to whomever we chose. On one occasion, we were briefly detained when trying to reach a Muslim village where a massacre had allegedly happened, but we were released after a few calls to sources in the central government.
This time, there was not even a pretense. From the moment the foreign journalists landed in Rakhine’s capital, we were ferried around in convoys with police escorts, and our rules of engagement were clear: no unauthorized stops, a specified amount of time at each location, no going out on our own after nightfall.
The unique challenges of this reporting trip became clear right away. We made our first stop at a camp for Rohingya refugees displaced by violence in Sittwe in 2012. A Rohingya camp leader, whom I had met on previous trips, came to the front of the pack of peering onlookers, and whisked several journalists away. We hurried deep into the camp, where he quickly blurted out answers to our few questions before growing silent. The media minders were watching, taking photos.
The Rohingya know the drill, too. It has become almost routine on these media tours. We tried speaking to a few more displaced Muslims about the problems they were facing and whether they had worsened since the violence in August. Most surreptitiously gave us their numbers and told us to call back later.
“That man, he is watching,” one Rohingya man said later, gesturing behind me. “We will have some trouble.”
That evening, before we set off to northern Rakhine state — where last year’s atrocities against the Rohingya took place — the foreign journalists, including teams from CNN, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Guardian and NHK, went through a process of negotiations. Our minders from the Ministry of Information offered to bring us to Inn Din, where two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, investigated the massacre of 10 Rohingya men. (The journalists were later sentenced to seven years in prison for violating laws on exposing state secrets, leading to outcry by international media freedom groups, rights activists and world leaders.)
The government has brought several journalists to the village before, always careful to highlight that a Rakhine Buddhist man was first killed by “Muslim terrorists” before the 10 men were killed in retribution. It is quick to point out, too, that seven Myanmar soldiers were sentenced to jail with hard labor, along with Rakhine Buddhist men, for the killings.
A United Nations fact-finding mission found that the Myanmar military’s tactics in Inn Din, where soldiers brutalized the population with the help of local Buddhists, were probably replicated across dozens more locations.
This includes the village of Min Gyi or Tula Toli, where the U.N. mission estimates that at least 750 people died “from being shot, stabbed, slit across the throat by a knife, beaten to death, drowned and burned.” We pushed to go there but were told it was off-limits. “Too far” or “the roads are not good” or “in some areas, it is still not safe,” came the replies. We tried other arguments. The villages were close to our route on our trip to the border, we noted. It was still a no.
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By the end, the farcical dance was exhausting — rush to our pit stop, try our best to avoid the minders and interview the Rohingya in a safe space, tolerate the complete denial of any atrocities having happened, and then rush back into our convoy before heading to the next village.
In one of the few Muslim villages left standing, the Myanmar government gathered Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist men in the village hall, and instructed them to tell us how they were all living peacefully. Only a few Muslim men would say anything to reporters; others remained silent, uncomfortable at the whole exercise.
When we contacted one later, he told us they were essentially given a script — one that he did not feel comfortable parroting because it was so far removed from reality.
One 22-year-old Rohingya man from the Sittwe camp and I have since found a safer way to communicate. The day after I returned to Yangon, he sent me a message:
“Sis, how do you think our problem can be solved quickly???” he asked. He has been in these camps since he was 16 years old. “We are very tired.”