Two Journalists Face 14 Years in Burmese Prison After Exposing Inn Din Massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims

As two Reuters journalists approached their third month in jail, the news service has published their disturbing, detailed 4,500-word investigative report documenting the September 2017 killings of 10 Rohingya Muslims that subsequently led to their arrest by Burmese authorities.

At the time of their arrest, the journalists were investigating the massacre of 10 Rohingya men committed by Burmese soldiers and villagers in Inn Din village, Maungdaw, about 30 miles north of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State. The victims were apparently picked at random from hundreds seeking refuge at a beach by the security forces, held overnight at school, and then executed the following day, September 2.

The report identified each of the victims by name and described them as fishermen, shopkeepers, and an Islamic teacher. Two were high school students in their late teens. They ranged in age from 17 to 45.

Two of the four journalists who worked on the report, U Wa Lone and U Kyaw Soe Oo, were  detained by authorities on December 12, 2017 for allegedly possessing confidential government documents, and in January charged with obtaining state secrets and violating the Official Secrets Act, a British colonial-era law. They have been denied bail and face up to 14 years in prison.

Human rights groups have accused the police of entrapping the two journalists by handing them documents. One relative said the two men had been seized so quickly that they did not even have a chance to examine the documents.

While the two journalists remain in prison, other Reuters  journalists have continued to piece together what happened in Inn Din, where Burmese soldiers and members of an informal militia executed 10 Rohingya Muslim captives. At least two of the men were hacked to death. The others were shot.

“One grave for 10 people,” said U Soe Chay, a 55-year-old retired soldier who admitted to Reuters that he had helped to dig the grave and saw the killings. The soldiers shot each man two or three times, he said, but not all died immediately.

“When they were being buried, some were still making noises,” Reuters quoted him as saying. “Others were already dead.”

In January, the Tatmadaw —Myanmar’s armed forces — confirmed that 10 men had been killed at Inn Din but claimed they were terrorists suspected of belonging to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) who had attacked security forces, and that the soldiers had decided to kill them because intense fighting made it impossible to keep them in custody, and there was no opportunity to take them to a police station.

However, key details of the Myanmar military’s own account of the killings were disputed by the Reuters report. The account marks the first time soldiers and paramilitary police have been implicated in violence against the Rohingya by testimony from security personnel themselves. After the mediocre coverup was torn apart by the Reuters article, the Tatmadaw announced on February 12 the formation of a court martial to investigate the alleged involvement of seven soldiers in the Inn Din massacre. Three police officers and six civilians are also being investigated on suspicion of participating in the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim villagers. The army has pledged to take action against those involved.

U Zaw Htay, a government spokesman, told Reuters, “We are not denying the allegations about violations of human rights. If we found the evidence is true and the violations are there, we will take the necessary action according to our existing law.”

Though the Reuters exposé provided more details about the killings, U Zaw Htay contends the government action against the security personnel had nothing to do with the report, noting that the government initiative was based on the results of its own investigation, which was prompted after the discovery of a mass grave near Inn Din cemetery.

The Reuters report was painstakingly constructed based on scores of interviews with Rakhine Buddhist villagers, soldiers, paramilitary police officers, Rohingya Muslims, and local administrators.

The villagers revealed to Reuters that the military and the paramilitary police had organized Buddhist residents of Inn Din and at least two other villages to torch Rohingya homes, and that Buddhist villagers had participated in the killings of Rohingya in the area.

The government has accused Rohingya insurgents of burning the homes themselves.

According to unidentified sources, an order to clear Inn Din had been passed down the military chain of command, and  security forces had dressed in civilian clothes to avoid being detected during raids.

Members of the paramilitary police looted Rohingya property, including motorcycles and cows, some of which were later taken by the military, Reuters reported.

The photographs of the 10 victims before and after the killings were provided by a Buddhist village elder who said he did not want to see the horrific events repeated.

The massacre occurred during a wave of attacks on the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State last year that Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said “constitutes ethnic cleansing.”

Since last year, at least 6,700 Rohingya have met violent deaths, including 730 children younger than 5, and hundreds of villages were destroyed by the military and Buddhist locals seeking revenge for deadly attacks on police posts by Rohingya insurgents.

About 700,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh to escape the violence. As of October, none of Inn Din’s 6,000 Rohingya remain in the village.

The Rohingya have accused the Burmese army of arson, rape, and murder in a systematic attempt to snuff them out of existence in this mainly Buddhist nation of 53 million. The United Nations has said the army may have committed genocide, describing the killings as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Myanmar insists its “clearance operation” is a legitimate response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.

The Rohingya’s presence in Rakhine can be traced back centuries. But most Burmese consider them to be unwanted immigrants from Bangladesh, while the army refers to the Rohingya as “Bengalis.” Sectarian tensions have exacerbated in recent years and the government has confined more than 100,000 Rohingya in camps where they have limited access to food, medicine, and education.

The Associated Press has also published a report on five mass graves in Gu Dar Pyin village in Buthidaung, but their findings were denied by the government’s Information Ministry.

Earlier this month, the office of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for the  immediate release of the two Reuters journalists (pictured left), citing the erosion of press freedom in Burma, and urged the authorities to respect the right to freedom of expression and information. On Tuesday, Deputy U.N. Political Affairs Chief Miroslav Jenca reiterated calls for the journalists to be freed.

The journalists have been rightly honored with PEN America’s PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.