Reuters has published details of an investigation into a mass grave in Myanmar’s Rakhine State that led to the arrest of two of its journalists and potential charges under the Official Secrets Act.
The report quotes a retired Myanmar Army soldier who claims he helped dig a mass grave for 10 Rohingya Muslims who were killed by Buddhist villagers and soldiers in Inn Din.
Myanmar journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo face up to 14 years in a Myanmar prison after being accused by the government of “illegally (acquiring) information” after gathering testimony on the alleged massacre.
Their bylines are on the report, which disputes key details of the Myanmar military’s own account of the killings. The account marks the first time soldiers and paramilitary police have been implicated in violence against the Rohingya by testimony from security personnel themselves, Reuters said.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay told CNN Myanmar would investigate the abuses if “strong and reliable primary evidence” was provided. “And then if we found the evidence is true and the violations are there, we will take the necessary action according to the law,” he said.
More than 680,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees have fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar into neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017, bringing with them stories of mass murder and destruction at the hands of the country’s military.
Myanmar’s military has repeatedly and vehemently denied any deliberate violence against civilians in the Rohingya-majority Rakhine State, claiming it has been conducting a battle against a militant insurgency in the country’s west.
Hacked and shot to death
The Reuters report centers on claims that in early September eight men and two teenage high school students in the Myanmar village of Inn Din were executed and then buried in a mass grave.
“At least two were hacked to death by Buddhist villagers. The rest were shot by Myanmar troops,” Reuters reported, citing two of the gravediggers. One of those gravediggers was 55-year-old retired soldier Soe Chay, who told Reuters soldiers told him to “do whatever you want with them.”
The Myanmar military has previously admitted their soldiers were involved in the mass grave and 10 deaths, in a statement published on January 11, one month after the arrest of the Reuters journalists on December 12.
Similarities exist between the Reuters report and the account from the military. However, the military claims the men were members of a group of 200 “terrorists” who had attacked security forces. It said a decision was made to kill them because there was no opportunity to take them to a police station.
According to Reuters, the 10 men buried in the mass grave were chosen from a group of hundreds of men, women and children who were sheltering at a nearby beach. Villagers interviewed by Reuters said there was no attack by a large number of security forces in in Inn Din.
Quoting interviews with Buddhist villagers, Reuters said the Myanmar military had organized other villagers to torch Rohingya homes, while anonymous military sources confirmed they’d been ordered to “clear” Rohingya hamlets in Inn Din.
“If they have a place to live, if they have food to eat, they can carry out more attacks,” an anonymous police officer told Reuters. “That’s why we burned their houses, mainly for security reasons.”
If true, it would be the first confirmation by a Myanmar military source of a deliberate campaign against Rohingya civilians and their property by the country’s army.
CNN cannot independently confirm Reuters reporting as media access to the region tightly controlled.
The international community has condemned the actions of the Myanmar government and military in Rakhine State, which both the United States and the United Nations have described as “ethnic cleansing.”
Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen Adler told the BBC the organization had decided it was their “responsibility” to publish what happened in Inn Din.
“When Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were first arrested, our primary focus was on their safety. Once we understood their legal situation, we, in consultation with Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and their relatives, decided (to publish),” he said.
Adler has said public pressure on the Myanmar government was needed to ensure the two journalists were spared a long prison sentence.
“These are two young journalists with families, out doing their jobs, in what we all support: free and independent journalism,” Adler told CNN’s Brian Stelter in January.