David Scott Mathieson explores the pernicious effects of fake news on complex conflicts.
The shaky mobile phone footage of Myanmar army soldiers questioning and beating men wearing civilian clothes shocked social media followers in recent weeks. Rights groups seized on the 17-minute long footage, claiming it demonstrated ongoing abuses by the military, or Tatmadaw, especially as government, military and ethnic armed groups leaders were meeting in the capital Naypyidaw for the Panglong 21st Century Peace conference in late May.
There is no denying the brute force impact of the footage, with soldiers striking handcuffed men with helmets, kicking them, and threatening them with sharp weapons, whilst demanding information, in Burmese, and through interpreters in Palaung, on suspected hidden weapons. Rights groups quoted in The New York Times claimed the footage was taken in recent days or weeks, yet it was determined subsequently to be two years old, pointing to the perils of premature social media posting of conflict reports.
The provenance of the film was soon under question after its initial Facebook appearance. The respected conflict journalist Lawi Weng of The Irrawaddy, citing sources from the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), reported the footage was from an incident in Northern Shan State from 2015 (Lawi was recently arrested in Shan State by Burmese army soldiers and charged under the Unlawful Associations Act. He faces three years in prison if convicted).
The TNLA’s political wing, the Palaung State Liberation Front released a statement clarifying that the footage was filmed on 27 May 2015, in Nampaka village, Kutkai township involving troops from Light Infantry Division 88 and their Panshay militia allies. Four men in the video were arrested and held in detention until their release in May 2016. It was a rare and welcome announcement on May 31 this year from Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office that the footage “is being investigated and if any abuses are discovered, actions will be taken against the perpetrators according to existing laws, procedures and regulations.” These are likely hollow words: the civilian government has no control over military operations or justice, and its track record on investigations of abuses is dismal.
But the recent footage was by no means the first, or even the most graphic that has emerged over the past two years from Myanmar’s many conflict zones. In early 2016, footage that appeared on social media purported to show Tatmadaw troops and Pyithu Sit (People’s Militia) forces torturing men in a Ta-ang village called Say Kin on December 23, 2015. That footage was confirmed by Ta-ang civil society groups soon after the incident, but it didn’t excite the same social media attention. In recent months, footage and photos have appeared on social media of dead men in Northern Shan State, often with voices off-camera speaking Burmese. The specific location, date and people involved cannot be confirmed, given the widespread nature of conflict in the area and the difficulty of accessing and verifying the footage.
For many long-term observers of the armed conflict in Myanmar, the emergence of horrific footage is merely a cinéma vérité confirmation of consistent reports of atrocities perpetrated by the security forces against ethnic civilians, conforming to the culture of recreational sadism that has permeated the Tatmadaw’s approach to counterinsurgency for decades. But it should not necessitate the release of home-video torture clips to bring attention to the almost daily abuses being perpetrated in the complex, multi-sided armed conflict in Northern Shan State. Amnesty International released a detailed report on war crimes in Shan State at the same time as the video went viral, but it received lamentably little international media attention. The Ta-ang Women’s Organization released a highly-detailed report in mid-2016 called ‘Trained to Torture’ on years of military abuses in Northern Shan State, and the international community barely noticed.
The Shan video and its initial claims of being recently filmed demonstrates the perils of unfiltered information on social media, what in intelligence circles is sometimes referred to as ‘stovepiping’; the elevation of primary reports to prominence without the necessary verification and contextualizing. This phenomenon permeates the echo-chamber culture of conflict analysis in Myanmar, which has led to a number of cases of misreporting and over-dramatization of events. The Shan State video was but a small, recent example of stovepiping, but the communal tensions and repression of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State is infused with misinformation that often distorts the undeniable horrors of state repression and abuse of human rights. Stovepiping is perfectly suited to the rapid-fire demands of Facebook and Twitter, but it contributes to a lot of confusion.
During the security operation in Northern Maungdaw township responding to the attack by suspected Rohingya Muslim militants that killed nine Border Guard Police officers, the government refused access to the media, human rights researchers and humanitarian aid workers. Harrowing reports of widespread abuses including killings, torture and ill-treatment, and sexual violence, were backed up by satellite imagery that clearly showed extensive arson of Rohingya Muslims’ villages. 75,000 Rohingya fled into Bangladesh, where they gave testimony to United Nations investigators, the media and human rights researchers.
Despite the indisputably sadistic nature of the security ‘area clearance’ operation, by denying access for investigators, the government is ultimately responsible for the resultant flood of fabricated photos, exaggerated reports, and clumsily produced videos that purported to show government abuses in Maungdaw. In one case in December last year, I was sent a number of photos claiming to show Myanmar army killings in a Rohingya village in Rakhine State. All nine photos were crude fakes. A colleague simply reversed the images in a Google search, and we quickly determined they originated from photos of corpses and conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, Southern Thailand and in one case, Myanmar police in Rakhine State in a photo shot in 2012. One of dozens of videos distributed during the months-long military operation in Rakhine State and flooded on YouTube was called “Rohingya Mujahedeen Fight Myanmar Army in Maungdaw”, which showed army helicopters and armored vehicles crossing terrain towards distant smoke plumes. But it wasn’t Maungdaw. It was a Tatmadaw live-fire exercise near the central Myanmar city of Meiktila, crudely relabeled.
The government seized on some of the ‘fake news’, taking a handful of the crudest ones, which showed men torturing a toddler in Cambodia, and using it to refute more credible reports of serious human rights violations. Official government Facebook pages, including from ministries under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, emblazoned ‘Fake Rape’ on posts to callously dismiss disturbingly wide-ranging reports of sexual violence perpetrated by security personnel against Rohingya women and girls. The clumsy, caustic and at times clearly desperate fake news produced around the world by Rohingya activists and their allies, or as part of an elaborate discrediting campaign from pro-government sources, was soon used as a shield by the government to reject reports of abuses. Rather than chalking up reports of abuses to fake news, the government should have been aware that regardless of any exaggerations, the extent of state violence in Rakhine State clearly warranted strong condemnation, an appeal for restraint, and a commitment to a genuine investigation.
Much of the fabricated video and photos are desperate measures to raise awareness and compel greater pressure for intervention in the international community, but they have the effect of stoking outrage over the treatment of the Rohingya by many people in the wider Muslim world, and exciting even more extreme enmity against the already vilified Rohingya within Myanmar. The plight of the stateless Rohingya in Myanmar is irrefutably horrific and unjust especially since the violence in 2012, but its long and difficult improvement won’t be helped if the misreporting and exaggerations of the past five years continues to frustrate an accurate assessment of the manifold miseries they are subjected to, and placed in context with the complex situation of all communities of Rakhine State.
The deplorable decision by the Myanmar government to deny visas to a United Nations formed fact-finding mission to investigate recent reports of abuses by the security forces, in all of Myanmar with special reference to Rakhine state (not, as so much media coverage has misreported, as just a probe into the recent Maungdaw violence) will likely fuel the production of more fabricated reports and multi-media to bolster exaggerated claims of abuses. The fact finders are advised to be vigilant in how they treat information coming out of conflict zones in Myanmar, and subject all reports to rigorous analysis, and be wary of information stovepiped direct to social media. Disinformation plays into the hands of government deniers and conflict actors wanting to divert blame. The government, and especially the Tatmadaw, have a great deal to hide in their brutal conduct in Rakhine State and war zones in the north, and disinformation should be determined and dismissed in the careful pursuit of accountability.
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on a range of peace, conflict and human rights issues inside Myanmar and for many years along the Thailand-Myanmar border. From 2006-2016 he was the Senior Researcher on Burma for Human Rights Watch.