Fake images make a bad situation worse in Myanmar

Images from other conflicts, some from 30 years ago, are being used as propaganda in the struggle between Rohingya muslims and the military in Rakhine state

Rohingya refugees stretch their hands for food near Balukhali in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Reuters
Rohingya refugees stretch their hands for food near Balukhali in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Reuters

Images claiming to depict the violence in Myanmar are being circulated and shared on social media are sowing distrust and undermining the work of human rights groups, say campaigners.

As real attacks have proceeded to get worse, graphic images, which, in some cases relate to atrocities elsewhere, are being posted alongside claims of violence both by the Rohingya people as well as against them.

Circulation of the ‘fake images’ follows an eruption of violence in Rakhine state, which has killed over 400 people and triggered an exodus of over 40,000 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh.

Conflicts started when insurgents attacked Myanmar security forces, which prompted a large scale counter-offensive brought on by the military. Refugees in Bangladesh, who arrived last week, reported that villages are being raided and burnt to the ground by soldiers. The government claims that rebels have killed Buddhists and Hindus, a claim confirmed by some residents in the area.

The violence led to a flood of social media posts claiming to depict the killings and torture. Last week, Mehmet Simsek, Turkish deputy Prime Minister was criticized last week for tweeting graphic images of corpses, with the caption “stop turning a blind eye to ethnic cleansing in #Arakan #Myanmar Int’l community must act now”, on Twitter. He later deleted the tweet and issued a correction after readers questioned whether the pictures depicted Myanmar.

The damage is done

His post was shared over 1,600 times online and liked by over 1,200 people. One of the photographs had been taken in 1994, in Rwanda.

Matthew Smith, chief executive of the human rights group, FortifyRifghts, said such posts are “tremendously unhelpful” and fuel mistrust.

“We’re trying to work with the Rohingya community and other communities in Myanmar to document the human rights abuses that are taking place, which are horrific. But when false images are connected to otherwise legitimate allegations it discredits all of the work that’s being done to document and establish the truth,” said Smith, speaking from the Bangladesh border.

Checking and verifying the authenticity of images has been a longstanding challenge for researchers.

Images shared by Simsek prompted allegations on Twitter that reports of human rights abuses against Rohingya people are fake. Meanwhile, an image being shared claiming to prove that Rohingya are militia, has been shown to depict soldiers training in Bangladesh.

Smith said a range of misleading footage was being shared – either unwittingly or as part of a coordinated attempt to discredit rival narratives. “Mixed in there are very large number of well-meaning people who genuinely believe the international community has got it wrong, and I think that’s the profound aspect of what’s happening among discourse in Myanmar.”

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