MAUNGDAW, Myanmar — Plainclothes police hovered around him. The elderl y Rohingya man was too afraid to talk.
He was gathered with dozens of other men, staring blankly at journalists who were on a government-led trip to Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state. He is among the 200,000 or so Rohingya Muslims who remain in this area, after more than 720,000 fled to neighboring Bangladesh during a brutal crackdown by the military of mostly Buddhist Myanmar.
The U.N. human rights commission said there was “genocidal intent” in the targeted killings and razing of villages that led to the mass flight of the Rohingya.
Myanmar’s leaders — including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi — have maintained that authorities were trying to quell an insurgency. The Myanmar propaganda push includes media trips, in which a rotating cast of foreign journalists are led around Rakhine state in police convoys.
As one official put it: “How can it be genocide if Muslims are still here?”
The elderly Rohingya man eventually did talk.
But it came on a phone call to The Washington Post. He mocked the picture painted by Myanmar government minders about the lives of the 300,000 or so Rohingya still in Rakhine.
Some homes in Muslim villages near his were torched as recently as this week, he said.
“We were told to tell [journalists] about how we are treated well here. They told us to talk about how we are living peacefully,” said the man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety.
He couldn’t bring himself to toe the line, but could not speak the truth either.
“We know they are recording us,” he said.
Faced with international pressure and mounting calls for accountability, Myanmar has mounted a defense of denial and defiance. Among the collateral damage is Suu Kyi’s reputation, which many see as tarnished and compromised.
For diplomats, aid groups and others, the attempt to shift the narrative is more evidence that Myanmar is unable or unwilling to correct long-standing discrimination against the beleaguered Rohingya.
It also underscores Myanmar’s unwillingness to bring any measure of accountability to last year’s violence in Rakhine, or to allow journalists to freely investigate the killings there.
Two journalists from the Reuters news agency, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who reported on the massacre of 10 Muslim men in the village of Inn Din, were convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for violating the country’s Official Secrets Act.
Meanwhile, the Rohingya languish and grow more desperate.
“The bottom line is that there has been no noteworthy progress,” said one senior diplomat in Yangon, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The Myanmar government “still seems utterly unable or unwilling to understand what they would need to do to get themselves out of this mess,” the official said.
The government’s efforts have also failed to mask attempts to erase any indication that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya lived here. Buddhists and Hindus are moving into new homes built across Rakhine state, and Rohingya Muslims who remain in Myanmar say they continue to face harassment and extortion.
The United Nations, which has just begun to access some parts of northern Rakhine state, says communities there are isolated and fearful.
“Mistrust, fear of neighboring communities and a sense of insecurity are prevalent in many areas,” Andrej Mahecic, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, said Friday. Muslim communities there, he added, also are restricted in accessing education or health services.
International pressure is ramping up. In late September, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted overwhelmingly to create an independent body to expedite criminal prosecution of Myanmar generals over their treatment of the Rohingya.
The action followed a 444-page report from a U.N. fact-finding mission that explored in excruciating detail how the Myanmar military has followed a pattern of abuse and violence across other ethnic minority states, such as Shan and Kachin. It also described the crackdown against the Rohingya as having “genocidal intent.”
The U.N. findings could give prosecutors evidence for possible cases in regional or international courts.
The Myanmar government and military have held firm to the explanation that their operation in Rakhine state was provoked by Rohingya militant attacks on police posts, but reports from both the United Nations and the State Department indicate a degree of premeditation and coordination.
Myanmar says that it is ready to repatriate hundreds of Rohingya back to their homes.
At a refugee reception center near the border, one Myanmar official boasted about new roads that Rohingya refugees will travel on from Bangladesh before turning over their identification documents for verification and eventually moving into new purpose-built villages to start their lives anew.
“We are ready,” said Soe Tun, head of the relocation center, which is prepared to receive 150 returnees a day for five days a week. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t want to come back.”
In the same breath, officials insist that there are “no Rohingya in Myanmar,” and will compel those who return to adopt a verification document that makes no mention of the word “Rohingya.” The Rohingya people are excluded from citizenship rights.
The Myanmar government says the verification document will be a pathway to citizenship. But the Rohingya — who believe themselves native to Myanmar — say it is just another step to muddle the process and enshrine second-class status.
The document will call them “Bengali.” The Rohingya want to keep their identity and to receive recognition as full citizens native to the area.
“Much of the government’s narrative so far has been built on physical structures, like model villages, because those structures exist,” said Knut Ostby, the United Nations’ resident coordinator in Myanmar. “But the rights-based part has not been addressed yet.”
As a gesture of goodwill, Myanmar has promised to close squalid camps in the southern part of the state where 125,000 Rohingya live after a spate of violence drove them out of their homes six years ago.
Reporters were taken to one of the largest, in Sittwe, and were told about a new hospital that would be built here. But no timeline has been given. The Rohingya believe the possible camp closures will shift them to newly constructed villages without restoring freedom of movement, the ability to own shops and businesses again, or the right to go to schools or hospitals freely.
“They told us, we will relocate you, we will construct individual house for you, and we will give you rations of five years,” said a 22-year-old Rohingya in the Sittwe camp. “But after that, what will happen? Wherever we walk, wherever we go, we get into trouble. Will that change?”
Cape Diamond contributed to this report.