'Who would want to admit that you are responsible if you know there were others involved?'

If my updates come roughly once a year, then the Reuters Special Report published yesterday on the systematic Rohingya massacre in a single village is a good one to start and close out 2018. If you haven't had the chance yet, I encourage you to please, please give it a read – even if you consume Southeast Asia news regularly and are experiencing fatigue with all devastating Rohingya news coverage. 

If anything, this could provide a clue into the sudden arrest and charges foisted upon Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. The information and details they uncovered – testimony from both Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya villagers about how the Myanmar military's 33rd Light Infantry Division led the "clearance operation" in Inn Din, interviews from Rakhine Buddhists and a retired soldier who openly admitted to razing the homes and murdering their Rohingya neighbors, photos of bones and remains of Rohingya victims who had been burned in a mass grave, photos of 10 Rohingya men who had been hacked to death and piled into a pit – are stunning and have been verified to the hilt, making it difficult for the military to deny knowledge or culpability. 

One thing that struck me while reading this was the openness the Buddhist villagers had when talking about it. For example: 

A medical assistant at the Inn Din village clinic, Aung Myat Tun, 20, said he took part in several raids. “Muslim houses were easy to burn because of the thatched roofs. You just light the edge of the roof,” he said. “The village elders put monks’ robes on the end of sticks to make the torches and soaked them with kerosene. We couldn’t bring phones. The police said they will shoot and kill us if they see any of us taking photos.”

or this account from a retired soldier who nonchalantly talks about discovering a Rohingya men with a smartphone trying to take incriminating photos of the massacre. 

The soldiers told Soe Chay to “do whatever you want to them,” he said. They pointed out the man with the phone and told him to stand up. “I started hacking him with a sword, and a soldier shot him when he fell down.”

Perhaps the only person who felt deeply unsettled by it was the Rakhine Buddhist elder who provided the Reuters team with the photo of the 10 men in a mass grave, brutally hacked and bleeding. "I want to be transparent on this case. I don’t want it to happen like that in future.”

All this reminded me of my conversation with Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, when I was reporting on former Khmer Rouge cadres who had converted to Christianity and suddenly employed some selective memory lapses when it came to their roles during the regime. Youk scoffed when I told him about how everyone we interviewed were simply soldiers at the border, fighting off their Vietnamese or Thai counterparts in daily skirmishes. He said that out of the 10,000 former cadres that he and his staff interviewed, only one has ever admitted to killing five people. "Who would want to admit that you are responsible if you know there were others involved?" he said.

Reading the Reuters report made me wonder what enables these Buddhist Rakhine villagers to be so open and... boastful about their participation. (Obviously, it's difficult to tell tone from text, so perhaps boastful isn't the most accurate way to describe how they were speaking.) Was it because the Rohingya were a different ethnicity, therefore making it easier for the Buddhists to dehumanize them and talk about their horrific actions against them? Was it because of time – that this is something that is still enfolding and is too current for anyone to take a step back and reflect? Was it because they are surrounded by people who agree with the killings (a large number of Burmans speak about the Rohingya in a derogatory way and have accused any media outlet reporting on it as liars), and they feel empowered by it?

Do they feel comfortable, and comforted, by what they – and their family and friends and neighbors – did? Much like the former Khmer Rouge cadres who still praise Pol Pot, would these deeds always sit easy in the hearts of the Rakhine Buddhists , even if they aren't as vocal about it after time has passed?

I turn these questions over endlessly in my head every time a story like this is published. This stunning Reuters report surely won't be the last. 

An addendum to my interview with Rob Carmichael in Fah Thai...

My Q&A with journalist and author Rob Carmichael was published in the July/August issue of Fah Thai. We spoke about the book he just published, When Clouds Fell From The Sky, and I also managed to interview Neary Ouk, the woman whose family is at the center of the book.

Unfortunately, Fah Thai wasn't able to publish the my interview with Neary, an experience I found to be incredibly affecting. Mostly, we talked about what it was like for her to read the book and what her relationship with Rob was like given that he was delving into a very personal and painful part of her family history. 

So I've decided to leave Neary's words here; think of it as an important addition to my conversation with Rob. I had envisioned the Fah Thai piece to feature her thoughts right next to Rob's Q&A, which is why this is just a recount of what she said. 

“There are a lot of things [my mother and I are] discovering while reading it, like how my family members have disappeared, because it’s not only my dad, actually. We are learning the fate of everyone, like my grandfather.”
“Rob’s been interviewing people – something I can’t do from where I am, and I wish I could have. Or some things I wouldn’t have found the strength to do, like interviewing Prak Khan. But I wish I could have done that myself. And Rob has been watching the world a lot, with some sense of psychology to the people involved in general.”
“Rob went back to S-21 with me, and he never imposed anything on me. I decided to introduce him to the carving I made to my dad, and we managed to speak at a time when I wasn’t so talkative; I guess that must have been a challenge for him. But we probably learned things from one another. He taught me how to probably let go and be less focused on one thing and see things more globally.”
“I wish my dad could have been there physically but that’s not the case. It’s certainly painful. But the trial is much more than that; it’s showing to the rest of the world that one has to be patient and it’s a matter of time that when people do harm, it always comes back to them.”

You can get Carmichael's book in Monument bookstores in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar; and in AsiaBooks in Thailand. It's also sold in Kindle form on Amazon