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Reuters special report reveals new details of Myanmar’s Rohingya expulsion campaign

Arif Ullah, who said his village was burnt down and relatives killed by Myanmar soldiers, comforts his wife Shakira, who collapsed from exhaustion as fleeing Rohingya refugees crossed into Bangladesh on a wooden boat in 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

A recently published Reuters special report shed new light on the Myanmar military’s expulsion of the Rohingya and its efforts to hide the campaign from the international community. ‘Planned Purge’ is the latest in-depth reporting from Reuters on the mass expulsion of the country’s Muslim minority in 2016 and 2017.

Written by Reuters Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Poppy McPherson and Wa Lone, ‘Planned Purge’ is based on a cache of documents that reveal discussions and planning around the expulsion of the Rohingya and efforts to protect the military’s image from international scrutiny. Reuters reviewed internal military memos, chain-of-command lists, training manuals, policy papers and audio-visual materials collected by war crimes investigators at the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA).

CIJA spent four years amassing some 25,000 pages of official documents, many of which it shared with Reuters. The documents also show how the military demonized the Rohingya, created militias that took part in operations against Muslims and coordinated their actions with ultranationalist Buddhist monks.

McPherson said, “Over several months, we scoured through the pages of documents to try to figure out what the main findings from CIJA’s vast collection were and to corroborate their authenticity. To do this, we spoke to more than a dozen people with knowledge of the military’s operations, including two members of the security forces who defected following the coup last year. We cross-checked details against media reports and were able to verify audio-visual material by matching elements from it against other material published around the time.”

“Overall, the internal documents showed that this was a systematic purge that was years in the making. The military had written, years before, that it wanted to push out the Rohingya in what it called a ‘national project’ and had prepared for that purge by implementing policies to that end. In the days immediately leading up to the campaign, it spoke of coordinating communications so that operations would be ‘unnoticeable’ to the international community, an attempt to conceal its actions from the world. To some extent, at least within Myanmar, the military’s effort to control the narrative was effective – many people did not believe accounts by refugees of what was happening to them. We hope that this report, and CIJA’s work, can help set the record straight.”

Reuters contacted Myanmar’s military junta for comment, but it did not respond to questions.

Since the 2017 expulsion, the military and government have denied committing atrocities. The military has insisted the operation was a legitimate counter-terrorism campaign and not a planned program of ethnic cleansing. Myanmar’s civilian leader at the time Aung San Suu Kyi dismissed criticism of the military in 2020, saying refugees may have exaggerated abuses and condemnations of the security forces were based on “unsubstantiated narratives.”

The report also explores the shifting views in Myanmar towards the purge and Rohingya. At the time of the expulsion of the Rohingya, many Burmese rallied behind the authorities in the face of allegations of ethnic cleansing and war crimes by the international community. The 2021 coup and the military’s use of violence to quell resistance have eroded anti-Rohingya prejudices.

CIJA is already handing over its materials to prosecutors in the Hague, who are examining the case against Myanmar. 

Read ‘Planned Purge’ and our Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘Myanmar Burning’ reporting on

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