On the afternoon of Wednesday, August 23, I sat anxiously in my Buthidaung office, tapping my pen on my desk: Where were our research teams?, I wondered, just as I had countless days that month in Northern Rakhine State. The local teams I had trained—a talented group of Rakhine and Rohingya working together—had each been assigned to visit a village in the morning, and to report back on their findings after lunch.
At the time, I worked for a well-known INGO, and though trained as a human rights lawyer, I had returned to Northern Rakhine to gain greater field research experience: this time, on the organization’s development work and its effectiveness. Unlike my time there in 2013, however—when I personally surveyed a number of Rakhine and Rohingya villages in the same area on issues directly related to interethnic conflict—I could no longer visit any villages myself: for although I had procured the separate government-mandated travel authorizations for Rakhine State and then for Maungdaw and Buthidaung—the two townships furthest north, closest to the Bangladesh border and home to the most Rohingya per capita—local administrations were no longer authorizing foreigners to visit rural villages in the area (though by whose order, it was hard to say).
I thus waited idly by each day, doing my best to let slide the increasingly habitual tardiness. Still, on a near-daily basis, the teams would arrive back around 3pm—two hours later than expected. There was generally no discussion as to why, and so I eventually ventured the question: Why were the trips taking so much longer than expected?
The reason was not one most were keen to volunteer. In almost every Rohingya village they visited, the researchers said, villagers had heard that some sort of attack—by the Burmese military or local vigilantes or both, it was not clear—was imminent, and so Rohingya villagers were scattered and in hiding, often in the nearby forests (where, in many parts, Rohingya were also no longer supposed to venture). In each village, it took time to gather and calm the focus groups before conducting their sessions.
In retrospect, the research teams’ reports were not the only, or even the first, trace I found of something larger brewing. Indeed, I recall another premonitory moment just days earlier, when one of the group’s most diligent and ever-pleasant Rohingya translators came into the office late, seeming exhausted and frazzled. As usual, I did not pry, and he did not offer. I later learned the truth: his village had also heard that it might be attacked, and so he had spent the night watching over his sleeping family in a nearby paddy field—this in the midst of the battering monsoon season.
From an outside perspective and with the benefit of hindsight, such experiences might seem like obvious red flags: what could possibly have made these scattered, isolated villages so sure that attacks were coming on several different days—not to mention enough to terrify a well-educated and informed professional like our translator? Yet in the tinderbox that was Northern Rakhine, such reports did not appear to strike most as unusual. Rather, they seemed a regular part of the region’s familiar pattern: one in which interethnic fears and frictions came and went in waves, but—with the exception of episodes like those of 2012 and 2016—rarely led to substantial bloodshed.
Still, taken alone, a handful of nervous villages does not a pre-meditated genocide make. At the time, many questions and counter-narratives might have been raised: Where were the villages getting this information, and what made them so sure of its accuracy? Or was this—as both local and foreign nonchalance seemed to suggest—just another day (or night) in Northern Rakhine?
Even my most prescient experience in Maungdaw presents at best circumstantial evidence that August 25 was not the genocidal “Day Zero”-of-sorts as it is now so often characterized. On August 23, a colleague—one who usually struck me as calm in the face of things that would otherwise perturb me, like the preceding weeks’ rash of villages-in-hiding—came rushing into a room where several of us were gathered. As we soon learned, she and an acquaintance had just witnessed gunfire at a nearby checkpoint. Several of us hastened to see what might be happening, but by then there was nothing left to see. Perhaps just another troublingly routine part of life in Northern Rakhine, I thought, following what seemed to be my colleagues’ seemingly cool-and-collected lead to the best of my ability, and returning after several minutes to our then-regular Game of Thrones viewing.
The next several days and weeks proved a blur. On the morning of Thursday, August 24, I was called down to Sittwe for unrelated reasons. Within three days (and much to my own confusion and surprise, given the lack of information and apparent business-as-usual), I found myself—after my regular Sunday morning coastal run—suddenly gathered with an ever-growing number of other foreigners in the nearest “international” hotel. What was happening?, I endeavoured to surmise, as I counted and interrogated the INGO workers flowing out of Maungdaw and Buthidaung en masse.
Over the following weeks and months, I—along with the rest of the world—gradually learned the now-rote details of what transpired on and in the wake of August 25. “ARSA attacks on government checkpoints result in 12 security personnel deaths,” the headlines claimed; “Myanmar reacts disproportionately; claims self-defense.” Like most, with little further information, I too bought into much of the narrative. Still, I insisted early on that—whatever Myanmar’s reasons for its exceedingly brutal crackdown—its treatment of the Rohingya already constituted genocide well before 2017.
Yet at the same time, other details were emerging: ones that, both in public discourse and in private conversations, would to my mind call into question the prevailing narrative and suggest that Myanmar had actively worked to stoke fear and conflict in Northern Rakhine well in advance of August 25.
It is now well-documented, for instance, that alarmist Facebook messages had been sent to both Rakhine and Rohingya across the region claiming imminent village-level attacks and encouraging both sides to strike first. Innumerable acts of discrimination and dehumanization intended to intimidate and weaken the Rohingya were also on the rise in the lead-up to the massacres.
Perhaps most tellingly, a recent Reuters investigation revealed that on August 10, Myanmar’s military—with the knowledge and support of Aung San Suu Kyi herself—deployed its most ruthless infantry divisions, “famed for their brutal counter-insurgency campaigns against this nation’s many ethnic minorities,” across Northern Rakhine. The dramatic military influx “stoked fear and tension across a volatile region,” Reuters reported; but was that not the very point of the exercise?
Indeed, in the midst of the attacks, on September 1 General Min Aung Hlaing referred to the “[Rohingya] problem” as “a long-standing one which has become an unfinished job”: a job, it seems, his military government was intent on finishing this time around.
In interviewing former Northern Rakhine workers and Rohingya refugees, I have heard considerable testimony supporting this view. To begin with, well before the Reuters report came out (yet corroborating the claims), several former local and foreign residents claimed that in early to mid-August, they had witnessed a highly unusual influx of national military personnel. Another acquaintance also reported watching, with surprise and distress, as an open-back truckload carrying crates of landmines arrived in Maungdaw on August 19. Besides blatantly violating international law, I thought, landmines have one purpose: to block movement in one of the most abhorrently indiscriminate—and hence near-universally condemned—manners possible. This could not have been—as Aung San Suu Kyi would have it—a move calculated to ensure “peace, stability and security.”
Worse yet, one group of villagers from Chut Pyin—a village tract just south of Maungdaw and Buthidaung—presented not only one of the most horrifying accounts of atrocities perpetrated post-August 25, but also perhaps one of the clearest examples of pre-meditated evil in advance of August 25. According the survivors, their village was entirely fenced off with barbed wire for 45 straight days before it was attacked. After running out of food, they said, the villagers resorted to eating leaves to survive—with two neighbors ultimately dying of starvation. In the meantime, their village was also routinely harassed and abused by both security officials and Rakhine youth alike, with rocks thrown in at them daily, and their mosque set ablaze on three separate occasions.
“We were sure we would all starve,” one survivor recounted, until the final attack on his starving village came on August 26. Faking his own death with only his eyes and nose above the water of a fishing pond, the villager recalls vividly witnessing the horrors that befell his village—a series of murders, gang-rapes, and neighbour-filled shelters set ablaze with RPGs. The only survivors, they reported, were those who had managed to wait out the atrocities in the water, smoke, or weeds.
Evidence has long been mounting that the events that have transpired in Northern Rakhine amount to genocide. Yet both personal experience and widespread testimony—along with, now, a growing body of outside evidence—are beginning to paint an even darker picture: one in which that genocide was not merely the fruit of decades of pent-up, organic interethnic tensions, but rather a decidedly pre-meditated and well-orchestrated clearance operation intended to decimate the Rohingya population.
We must therefore ask ourselves: why do we continue to accept and deploy the prevailing narrative? Is there not adequate evidence to suggest that Myanmar may well have been preparing its own “final solution?” Or at the very least, does it not seem quite plausible that the Myanmar government sought to trigger ARSA and/or the Rohingya into acts of perceived self-defense?
I do not claim to have all the answers, but I do realize now that I—like countless other Northern Rakhine locals, refugees, and other foreign workers—do have one part of the story. It is a story akin to a mad-lib that we share a duty to complete: one that—in the pursuit of justice and accountability—we must finish writing.
Ashley S. Kinseth is an international human rights and humanitarian lawyer who has studied and worked on Myanmar-and Rohingya-related issues for over five years. She is the founder of the non-profit organization the Stateless Dignity Project, which works to advocate for and advance the safety and dignity of stateless persons.