The Rohingya, a long-suffering Muslim minority in Burma, are allegedly peacefully returning to their country from Bangladesh, where thousands fled last year after a surge of violence against them last year that the United Nations said might qualify as genocide.
At least, that is the story that the Burmese government would like the world to believe.
But a recent government-sponsored trip to Burma by New York Times journalist Hannah Beech and photographer Adam Dean revealed numerous holes in the official narrative of the Burmese government.
Burma is also known as Myanmar, a name which the U.S. government and many democracy activists oppose, because they say it was illegally imposed on the country by its military dictatorship.
While the Burmese government told journalists on the trip that the groups of people they were seeing were Rohingya peacefully returning to Burma after their exodus, hushed conversations with locals revealed that that was not the case.
“The men at one of the country’s three repatriation centers shook their heads when asked if they had peacefully come back to Myanmar from Bangladesh,” Beech wrote.
“They said they had not been repatriated at all. In fact, they said, they had never even left this waterlogged stretch of marsh and mountain in Myanmar, and had been swept up in the government’s broad repression of the Rohingya minority.”
“One day, last year, three of the men said, soldiers had arrested them in their village in northern Rakhine State. Five and a half months later, they were released and charged with illegal immigration,” Beech reported.
Until they were driven out by violence and the burning of their villages, the Rohingya had mostly occupied Burma's Rakhine state. Conversations with locals in the area revealed more cracks in the government's storyline, which maintains that the Rohingya are terrorists who burned their own villages to create a ruse.
“...a girl, who would be in danger if her name were revealed, said she missed a Muslim friend who had lived a few houses down. ‘The Rakhine burned their houses down,’ she said, referring to civilians from the Buddhist ethnic group that gives Rakhine State its name. ‘My friend is gone forever,’” Beech reported.
“A man corrected her quickly. ‘You’re supposed to say the reverse,’ he admonished. ‘You should say they burned their own houses down.’”
Another boy confirmed to the Times journalists that he had seen government forces burning Rohingya villages.
“Who would burn down their own houses?” the boy told the journalists. ‘That’s stupid.”
Despite widespread use of the word Rohingya in the international community, the term is controversial within Burma. The Burmese government refuses to use the term, and considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They have been denied citizenship and numerous other rights since a controversial law was enacted in 1982.
Last year the Rohingya faced a sharp increase in state-sponsored violence in their homeland, which reached levels that led the United Nations to declare the crisis “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh, and are living in refugee camps, many of which are located in a swampy sort of “buffer zone” along the border between the two countries.
When asked, government officials were not able to provide the New York Times journalists an official death count, broken down by ethnicity, from the surges of violence last year.
In a 2017 trip to Bangladesh, Pope Francis met with a group of Rohingya and offered them his prayers and condolences for what they had endured.
“In the name of all who have persecuted you and persecute you, that have done you harm, above all, the world's indifference, I ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness,” the Pope said in a Dec. 1, 2017 meeting with Rohingya.
After greeting them individually and hearing brief explanations of their stories, Pope Francis told them that “we are very close to you.”
Although there's “little we can do because your tragedy is very hard and great,” he told them “we give you space in the heart.”
He explained that according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, God created man in his image and likeness.
“All of us are in this image, also these brothers and sisters, they too are in the image of God,” he said.