YANGON, MYANMAR —
The Myanmar government’s rebuttal of an Associated Press report documenting mass graves in a village in northern Rakhine State has again highlighted the need for an independent investigation committee to be allowed access to the restive region, human rights groups say.
On February 2, AP published a report alleging a massacre had taken place at the hands of Myanmar security forces in the village of Gu Dar Pyin, close to Buthidaung town, in Rakhine State. The report, which relied on eyewitness testimony, satellite imagery and mobile phone footage, alleged security forces had burned some of the corpses with acid.
Seventy-five victims have been uncovered from the graves, the report said, but village residents estimate about 400 people were killed in the operation, which took place August 27, just days after the attacks by fighters from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army that were the catalyst for a military crackdown that has seen almost 700,000 people, overwhelmingly Muslim Rohingya, flee over the border into Bangladesh.
The day after the AP report, Myanmar state media published an article, saying it refuted the original reporting and that local officials had visited Gu Dar Pyin to investigate the claims. The February 3 article, published in the Global New Light of Myanmar, said villagers had “reiterated they had not heard of any massacres near their village.”
The government claimed security forces were attacked by a combined group of ARSA fighters and about 500 villagers, the security forces had acted in self defense. The report said 19 “bodies of terrorists” were found, as well as weapons, including machetes and spears.
The government has since said it plans to sue AP for its reporting, and called on the agency to apologize.
Government spokesperson Zaw Htay could not be reached for comment before deadline.
“The Associated Press stands by its reporting,” Lauren Easton, director of media relations for AP told VOA by email.
Researchers for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch told VOA the government’s response highlighted the need for an independent investigation to be conducted in northern Rakhine.
Dutch diplomat Laetitia van den Assum, who was a member of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which submitted its final report to the Myanmar government in August, called the findings in the AP report “horrific” and “deeply troubling”.
She pointed to the one-day turnaround for the government’s response to the article.
“This is simply not credible for serious crimes that require in-depth investigations,” van den Assum told VOA. “Moreover, in a highly charged environment, speaking with villagers has to be done with great care.”
“Only an independent and impartial team with the necessary technical and forensic know-how can be relied upon to make a proper assessment,” she said, adding the U.N. fact-finding mission will present its first report in March based on research conducted outside the country and that “no one should underestimate the importance of this report”.
“This is just another attempt at a cover up,” Mathieson told VOA. “It’s part of a broader pattern of almost an criminally inept attempt at media relations, and I think it’s only going to get worse.”