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Saturday, January 6, 2018

A Challenge to the Media on Myanmar "Fake News"

Adam Larson (aka Caustic Logic)
January 6, 2018
edits Jan. 7, 9, 12

I'll start with what inspired this post: a "news" story in The Record, December 8: Fake news on Facebook fans the flames of hate against the Rohingya in Myanmar, by Annie Gowen. "For Buddhists in Myanmar, even a quick scroll through Facebook's news feed provides fuel for hatred and nationalistic fervor," writes Gowen.

Firstly, these stories and view may not be fake. As Gowen summarizes:
"According to the posts, international news and human rights organizations are falsely accusing the military of carrying out atrocities against the Rohingya to help terrorists infiltrate the country, kill Buddhists and carve out a separatist Islamic province."
From the bit I've seen, this puts their views pretty well. It's alleged Zatw Htay used doctored photos regarding the burning of villages. That could be. I haven't seen these, but I guess it's not the picture shown below?

<add 1/7>The Star reports on this, I had seen it in passing. The photo is dubious on the face of it but hard to read. I may try harder at some point. And as it happens, the woman in the photo was just seen among witnesses giving this story, looking just as distinct and in the same clothes, minus the head towel. That's definitely weird, fake news, and overly fake in fact. It casts doubt on the story told there, but doubt is just that.

So both sides have used false images in this battle of ideas. Rule of thumb: any purported photo is suspect. The fires are set mainly at night, etc. Who's behind it will come down to other, less conclusive evidence, and to the other clues setting the overall context; if the army really is storming and massacring villages, they're probably the ones torching as well. If ARSA-types are faking stuff and committing their own crimes, they're the likely culprits. I think we can all agree on that.<end 1/7>

Otherwise these views could be untrue, intentionally or not. And like anyone, these people can also tell the truth, in whole or in part. From what I see, with some research and a lot of prior work on similar situations, that quote is a pretty good summary of the reality of events. Sound crazy? Here's my overview of what's known vs. what's possible, or just see the three examples that constitute the essence of this challenge (see below). 

Next, it's not usually "news" spreading this interpretation of events. It's mainly in the form of social media comments by persons, if often citing government and pro-government media sources. These reports get scant attention in the outside world, so maybe their being shared is a favor that can help bring balance. 

Gowen, on the other hand, directly writes what's called news, at the Washington Post and wherever else. Along with many others calling the other side liars, the information they push had better not be fake, or this Gowen piece would be like the clock being called black, by the kettle.

Here, regarding Myanmar's atrocities against the Rohingya, the news I've seen is based on two things:
- The reality of a lot of refugees and a lot of burned places. There are two competing stories for this, each with a certain logic and some evidence. But in the "news," one story is just laughed off the table to start with, as the other raised in its stead as the evident fact.
- The basis of the above-described sorting of claims: accepting without question the stories from those rushing the border in a potentially fake crisis. They describe arguably ridiculous barbarity against innocent Muslims, of a kind Islamists engaged in a conflict will report anywhere, a kind we should have developed some skepticism about long ago.

This plus using the right form and words, including some small facts and some prior claims wrapped around the current claims, so they appear like evident truth, stated more than fairly - this is what forms what Gowen would call regular, non-fake news. And it's bite-sized, not too complex, like my rambling crap. 

Three Massacre News Stories and the Challenge
With just some research, I can already spot at least three areas where this breaks down and the news is exposed as fake. Or, rather.... it's wrong somehow. The vast majority of such claims can't re verified or proven wrong like this - they're just a huge pile of uncertainty. The fact that I can pin down this many weak spot so easily suggests to me there's a serious problem with the truth content of the accepted stories.

The challenge is three-part. After each case is explained briefly (relatively), the question is posed which of those accepted but conflicting stories is "fake news or, rather ...(whatever we could also call it)." I'll be trying to get answers on Twitter or wherever, mainly from Annie Gowen to start. Links forthcoming... 

1) Kha Maung Seik Massacre Story Change 

Did you know some witnesses regarding these massacres have changed their stories? One of the earliest mass-killings to be reported was at Kha Maung Seik or Fawira/Foira/Fakira Bazar and/or Ye Baw Kya village (same area, unclear). It was just minutes into the current conflict that started with ARSA raids on security posts, early on August 25. Look it up - there are two drastically different yet eerily similar stories of this event (two sample links for each below), citing the same witnesses but at different times, in different contexts. Both stories appear in stories most would call news and consider true. But they can't both be true.

One story was told first, in the Muslim camp at Kutapalong, Bangladesh, at least by September 4 (photos date with a story run September 6, from Reuters reporter Simon Lewis:

Some 20 survivors, both Muslim and Hindu, swore army soldiers and Buddhist locals teamed up to kill Muslims and Hindus alike. But for the survivors, it just brought them closer together. Eight attractive young Hindu women/girls (as least as young as 15, but married w/kids per local norms, and at least as old as 28), and their few kids - that's all that lived from the Hindu side, as luck would have it. Did the regime and Buddhist killers spare them for some reason? Well, they had since converted to Islam, and fled with some Muslims who also survived (it seems more on that side did, and tending to be male and single enough). They all lived together in the Muslim camp. 

These same eight women were shown, singly and in different combinations, in several videos and pimped to different reporters, always telling the same basic story, but with varying degrees of clarity on who the black-masked killers really were (presumed government/Buddhist but sometimes less sure), and sometimes mentioning the strange religion-switch that accompanied their unusual survival. (Reka Dhar said she doesn't know who hacked her husband to death, but some nice Muslims agreed to help her and others escape "because we promised them we would convert to their religion.") They don't mention getting re-married since their husbands were killed, allegedly because they refused to help the Buddhists to kill the Muslims. “They asked my husband to join them to kill Rohingya but he refused, so they killed him,” said Anika Bala, 15. Six months pregnant, she said Muslims helped her get to Bangladesh." (see here for reports)

Anyway, after people recognized these young ladies saying strange and horrible things on TV,  they had calls placed (not the story, a guess - people in the camp noticed a problem) and the women and their kids (all of them) were separated from the Muslims and transferred to a Hindu camp. Here they first gave public accounts of the other story, by at least September 16, when this video (still at right) was published: black-clad ARSA Islamists shouting Allahu Akbar overran the nearest army post, then headed straight to their unprotected homes. These men massacred the girls' families, cutting their throats and dumping them  in pits, calling it their way of celebrating the feast of Eid.* Only these prettiest 8 were spared as too valuable to just kill, but their husbands were slaughtered as they were made to watch. The girls were forced to convert to Islam. Some were then "married" to some of militants, and presumably raped repeatedly under that pretext. But it was a way to survive, and the deal saved the lives of 8 or 10 of their children (one at least is a baby brother of a girl who was just newlywed, not a mother yet). (no, he's missing, likely dead)

* Eid al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice, marks the end of the Hajj season. It was marked by most Muslims on Sept. 1 or 2 last year. This is August 25, a bit early. But I read that Saudi Arabia started an extended Eid celebration on August 24. And who pays ARSA's bills? (added 1/12)

This story they told, both in the Hindu camp and back in Myanmar. So maybe under duress by the regime? (this guy thinks so, and got it run on the Guardian. Add 1/12: Human Rights Watch also doesn't like their story - without mentioning these girls, they call this a government accusation, complaining "no one has been able to independently verify the Burmese government’s most recent allegations" with bodies "allegedly" found). That pressure to lie can also exist in the Hindu camp, apparently, and no kind of pressure to lie can exist in a Muslim camp, with people who wind up married to/living with the 8 pretty converted widows who by luck survived?

<add 1/9>Here's a detailed account of their ordeal, as told upon returning to Myanmar in October. Consider this:
The Hindus were kept together with Muslims at the Kutuparlaung refugee camp and forced to wear burqas, the traditional dress of Muslim women. At about 1pm, foreign media (speaking in English) conducted interviews. The Hindus were told to tell the media that men and their families were killed by the army and ethnics. They had to flee fearing that they would be killed by the army troops. They were threatened that their children’s throats would be slashed unless they said as they were told.
<end 1/9>

Foreign media was brought in to hear their story from locals at Kha Maung Seik, and see some of the 45 decaying bodies that had been found based on tips from the women. This degree of closure was only achieved on September 25, with another 50 or so anticipated bodies still not located at the time. There hasn't been a public update since. 

Two of several resultant news stories, from AFP: http://indianexpress.com/article/world/rohingya-crisis-hindus-recount-massacre-in-myanmar-as-mass-graves-unearthed-in-rakhine-state-4863922/
Another from Reuters, noting they had earlier run a conflicting story:  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-rohingya/myanmar-finds-more-bodies-in-mass-grave-u-n-seeks-rapid-aid-increase-idUSKCN1C01GT

Challenge: which story was "fake news?" Or rather ... which story is a lie, obscuring the truth of an actual massacre? You want to call those alleged massacre survivors liars? Okay, they must be in one version. But it seems no one wants to make a clear call here. HRW and Amnesty have been handed these reports, and probably some strenuous denials and counter-claims, and are still waiting until that gets clearer, and might wait forever to decide what happened at Kha Maung Seik and make any kind of noise about it.

2) Maung Nu Massacre Date Change
Annie Gowen herself reported on a massacre in Maung Nu village that's become central since then. Back in mid-September, it was front page news, and the first English-language news story I've found to mention the event. Quite a scoop. 

"Fortify Rights, a Southeast Asia-focused human rights organization, estimates the death toll in Maung Nu and three nearby villages to be 150," Gowen writes. But how and when isn't very clear.  The story relates several days of "horror" in Maung Nu, starting with the worst, it seems, on August 25, with a massacre by the army, killing enough that "blood flowed in the streets." But many survivors were left, only threatened that they must leave soon. One guy was shot through the hip but lived and hid in the forest. On day 2, bodies were seen being hauled away on a boat. On day three (August 27), the wounded guy's mother joined him in the woods. On days 4 and 5 the rest of the villagers grew more worried until on day 6 everyone decided to leave, before there could be another massacre.

This is no fluke in reporting or a single confused account; it's presented as the distillation of several people spoken to: "Nearly a dozen villagers from the Maung Nu hamlet who escaped recounted their last hours in their homes and the long journey that followed."

Well that's great, but Human Rights Watch and all other news reports, based on dozens of stories say it was only two days later on August 27 that the main massacre there happened. As they describe it, it's a pretty singular event one would be unlikely to forget.

HRW report, October 3, citing 14 witnesses agreeing on the August 27 massacrehttps://www.hrw.org/news/2017/10/03/burma-military-massacres-dozens-rohingya-village

From these, I have 14 shady witnesses here, needing still to work in Gowen's. Comparing now, she gives 6 names. All are new to that list. Boat captain Mohamed Zubair is the one I remember seeing, cited by HRW as a peripheral witness to the pre-massacre boat thing, so I didn't include him. 5 others were retired before the final version came out? My list will grow by six. (note, soon after: the list is updated now, 20 witnesses, 15 cited for a massacre on the 27th, six against (with the boat captain alone appearing in both sets, with the same story but taking on a different context in each version.)

Killer officer "Bajo" here is "Baju" in later sources, like HRW. That's the same name and guy, skinny and tall, but a different story. HRW also says he managed bodies "after the fighting ceased," which was early on the 25th). Some say homes were burnt and people were shot while fleeing at this time, but it's not clear if any civilians were massacred then. The victims were all "young men," perhaps killed in the clashes. Like Gowen, HRW heard the corpses were taken away with a boat Baju had to requisition from a talkative Rohingya, Mr. Zubair. 

But this is all a prelude to the massacre of August 27. HRW heard Baju also led this, herding over 100 people (87 men in one story, plus their women and children) into two houses and butchering them methodically, with just a few dozen survivors. No one in Gowen's pool of interviewees mentioned this.  Her whole story compressed: 

Challenge: there's little need to ask here - it's probably Gowen's early version that's fake. Or rather, if either is fake, both probably are. Isn't at least this version fake? What else can explain such a drastic omission? Considering the above and below cases, it seems to me like a moment of plan B tripping over plan A.

Important side-note: in Maung Nu, we hear a very similar death toll - around 90-100 in most versions - to the number of Hindus killed in Kha Maung Seik. We also hear that the bodies were strangely removed, trucked somewhere else... I suspect they PLAN to say they were taken to Kha Maung Seik, buried there and passed off as Hindus, and they'll suggest all claims otherwise, including from those 8 Hindu women, are "fake news." See here. They would also have to toss their August 25 government massacre of Hindus story under the bus as more "fake news," but that story seems pretty dead anyway. 

If this is the case, anyone helping promote the refugee camp story of the Maung Nu massacre would be helping launder a genuine and brutal massacre.  For what it's worth. 

3) Tula Toli Massacre: Problems with the Prelude 
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are not exactly news, but sort of, and supposedly quite a bit better. They report on the massive Tula Toli massacre of August 30, where witnesses say about 1,000 or more civilians were butchered in a cruel and strange system before the village was torched. This is the biggest massacre reported by far, their flagship story. I have some general problems with the evidence in this case, collected here.

Both groups also heard of a preceding massacre and burning in the village across the river on August 28, from which Rohingya fled to Tula Toli, swimming southeast, some only to be killed there later. Those who lived through the Tula Toli massacre - a "handful" of 18 or 20, or around 75 who've spoken to the media - mainly say they did so by swimming back across to this other village. At least two alleged witnesses survived both massacres by making that swim both ways. 

So why do HRW and Amnesty disagree on the name of the village hit first? They agree, as witnesses told them, it was a Rohingya town, or it was their part that was burned. But AI heard it was called "Wet Kyein," while HRW heard it was "Dual Toli." 

That might matter greatly. HRW heard Wet Kyein was a Rakhine village, maybe because it was (if just partly). But they heard it was in a different area where houses were not burned (Rakhine/Buddhists spared.) So why was AI wrong? The government in Myanmar agrees with them, as does a UN map and a US Army map I found - that Wet Kyein is across the river on the east bank. But like HRW, the government says Rakhines of the Mro sub-group lived there, or at least in the area of town where at least 30 homes were burned by ARSA militants, mid-day on August 28.

See: http://libyancivilwar.blogspot.com/2017/12/tula-toli-massacre-where-is-wet-kyein.html

In the January 6 update there, see how I found some evidence some Rohingya Muslims also lived in Wet Kyein, including one who was "a former ward administrator in Badakar village" nearby "and had been working with local authorities on regional development activities." He was beheaded, apparently by Islamist insurgents for working with the government, in December 2016. So Rohingya lived there, despite what HRW heard, and were reportedly killing each other.

But I'm inclined to believe there were Rakhine homes too, as the government and HRW say, in a mixed village scenario that seems fairly common. The fast-breeding Rohingya might function like the cranberry juice is all the mixed fruit juices you'll see at the store (It gets mixed in with everything!). The proportions of each ethnic group, their relations, etc. aren't clear at the moment, but here we see the ARSA promoters deceptively shifting that name off the burned-down area.  That suggests it's they who have something to hide here, not the alleged Army-Buddhist killers with their rape huts and burn pits. And from the risky hassles they've taken to confuse and fuse it into the Tula Toli story, the Wet Kyein massacre (??) might be a fairly big deal they're worried about.

I suspect an ARSA gang raided the Buddhist area, killed and maybe kidnapped some infidels, and then laundered that in two different ways, shifting mid-stream: to AI in October, they used the village's real name but described it as Rohingya and attacked by the army. To HRW in December, they carefully moved that name, and re-named the burned village. That could be wrong, and even proven wrong, perhaps. But considering this strange confusion, and my years of prior research, it's a pretty good hypothesis. It deserves to be addressed and debunked carefully, or accepted if it's borne out. Instead, I predict it will be ignored.

Challenge: can anyone show that HRW had it right, that this is some honest confusion, or find where all the Rakhine homes really were and then show they're un-burnt as claimed?

On Stories that Spread Hate
If these massacres like Tula Toli, Maung Nu, and the first version of Kha Maung Seik are fake - or if they're true, either way - these stories are dangerous. If true, they need told, but when atrocities against Muslims are reported in Islamist media channels, on Facebbook and elsewhere, they don't even need to call for violence themselves. The people who matter know what this means and what should be done. Blood is required. 

Such claims, supported grisly images and shocking details, elicit emotion and circumvent critical thinking among jihad-minded people around the world. They scrape up what they can, money for guns, a few friends, whatever to support the struggle in wherever. With the "news" stories of Setember to December, that includes Myanmar or "Arakan" bigger than ever. The freed Hindu women from Kha Maung Seik say some of the black-clad men who commiited the massacre were groups of foreigners, speaking languages they've never heard. How they would get there isn't clear, but there are ways. Was that true? Are more on their way? 

Any foreigners fighting in Myanmar would be attracted there, as everywhere, by reports and claims of atrocities against their fellow Sunni Muslims. Or maybe it's the money, the prospect of pretty new "wives," or whatever, but they cite the brutally slain kids and women of massacre like Tula Toli, Maung Nu, and Kha Maung Seik, as with Houla in Syria and so many others before. They can link to news stories like these as proof, and even as a sort of tacit encouragement from the establishment they know runs the media.

But as I've noticed for some time, those "news" stories are pretty much written by Islamist activists playing witnesses (or playing with them in some cases). They're just handed in and copied into a "news" story designed to make the claims sound plausible and supported by clear precedents - similar stories accepted already, etc. That's stenography, circular reasoning, and some twists of deception. Some of it might be true on accident, or where the sources happen to not be lying, but at its heart that's fake news. It's not guaranteed to be false, but it's extremely vulnerable to that.

In these stories -  that become quite stupid once you look at them closer - Myanmar's army and militant Buddhist monks and villagers next door are blamed. As the latest agents of Satan holding back the Muslims people from reaching their destiny and trying to crush them out of existence, the alleged killers or those who worked with them can now be killed with just the same cruelty or greater. Also, collaborators within the Muslim community are considered enemies and killed when the chance arises (see Dec. 2016 as cited above, and Dec. 2017).  There are fatwas saying so and that's all that matters to these guys.

And if the infidels are killed, they can and might be claimed as innocent Muslims killed by Buddhists, repeating the cycle, hopefully, until they finally get their purified "Arakan Islamic State," with or without the help of a Libya-style "No Fly Zone."

Annie Gowen's reporting will be part of what feeds into this. I encourage her, and anyone else seeing this, to now reflect. Are we OK with our current level of responsibility in reporting? Is there no unjustified blood on our hands now or in  the future?

Challenges Met?
I'm not expecting much, but ...
- Alerting Annie Gowen on Twitter re: Q2
- to HRW and AI also on Twitter re: Q3
- to Simon Lewis, Reuters re: Q1

There are more challenges I'll gather here, and encourage some polite but straightforward and non-trollish encouragement - so far, none of these people seems to notice my questions or feel like responding.

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