August 30, 2018 / 9:05 PM / 21 days ago

Exclusive - Fake photos in Myanmar army's 'True News' book on the Rohingya crisis

YANGON (This version of the August 31 story corrects “fleeing” to “who had fled” in paragraph 21)

(Reuters) - The grainy black-and-white photo, printed in a new book on the Rohingya crisis authored by Myanmar’s army, shows a man standing over two bodies, wielding a farming tool. “Bengalis killed local ethnics brutally”, reads the caption.

In the top screenshot, an authentic image (as captured from Flickr) depicts the bodies of Bengalis being retrieved following a massacre in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1971. In the bottom screenshot, the same image has been repurposed in the Myanmar army’s recent book on the Rohingya. Here, the book falsely describes the scene as the brutal killing by Bengalis of local ethnic people in Myanmar. (Top: Anwar Hossain/Flickr, Bottom: Myanmar Politics and the Tatmadaw: Part 1/via REUTERS)

The photo appears in a section of the book covering ethnic riots in Myanmar in the 1940s. The text says the image shows Buddhists murdered by Rohingya - members of a Muslim minority the book refers to as “Bengalis” to imply they are illegal immigrants.

But a Reuters examination of the photograph shows it was actually taken during Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war, when hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis were killed by Pakistani troops.

It is one of three images that appear in the book, published in July by the army’s department of public relations and psychological warfare, that have been misrepresented as archival pictures from the western state of Rakhine.

In fact, Reuters found that two of the photos originally were taken in Bangladesh and Tanzania. A third was falsely labelled as depicting Rohingya entering Myanmar from Bangladesh, when in reality it showed migrants leaving the country.

The top screenshot shows a prize-winning image of Hutu refugees taken in 1996 following the violence in Rwanda. In the bottom screenshot, the same image has been altered for use in the Myanmar army’s recently published book on the Rohingya. It has been converted to black and white, and the caption falsely describes the subjects as Bengalis who have “intruded” into Myanmar after the British colonial occupation of lower Myanmar. (Top: Martha Rial/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/The Pulitzer Prizes. Bottom: Myanmar Politics and the Tatmadaw: Part 1/via REUTERS)

Government spokesman Zaw Htay and a military spokesman could not be reached for comment on the authenticity of the images. U Myo Myint Maung, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Information, declined to comment, saying he had not read the book.

The 117-page “Myanmar Politics and the Tatmadaw: Part I” relates the army’s narrative of August last year, when some 700,000 Rohingya fled Rakhine to Bangladesh, according to United Nations agencies, triggering reports of mass killings, rape, and arson. Tatmadaw is the official name of Myanmar’s military.

Much of the content is sourced to the military’s “True News” information unit, which since the start of the crisis has distributed news giving the army’s perspective, mostly via Facebook.

The book is on sale at bookstores across the commercial capital of Yangon. A member of staff at Innwa, one of the biggest bookshops in the city, said the 50 copies the store ordered had sold out, but there was no plan to order more. “Not many people came looking for it,” said the bookseller, who declined to be named.

On Monday, Facebook banned the army chief and other military officials accused of using the platform to “inflame ethnic and religious tensions”. The same day, U.N investigators accused Senior General Min Aung Hlaing of overseeing a campaign with “genocidal intent” and recommended he and other senior officials be prosecuted for crimes against humanity.

In its new book, the military denies the allegations of abuses, blaming the violence on “Bengali terrorists” it says were intent on carving out a Rohingya state named “Arkistan”.

Attacks by Rohingya militants calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army preceded the military’s crackdown in August 2017 in Rakhine state, in which the U.N. investigators say 10,000 people may have been killed. The group denies it has separatist aims.

The book also seeks to trace the history of the Rohingya - who regard themselves as native to western Myanmar - casting them as interlopers from Bangladesh.

The top screenshot shows a genuine photo from Getty Images depicting Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants, who were trying to flee Myanmar, after their boat was seized by Myanmar’s navy, near Yangon, in 2015. In the screenshot below, the same image appears in the Myanmar army’s new book on the Rohingya. It has been flipped and converted to black and white. The caption falsely says the image shows Bengalis entering Myanmar by boat. (Top: Getty Images, Bottom: Myanmar Politics and the Tatmadaw: Part 1/via REUTERS)

In the introduction to the book the writer, listed as Lieutenant Colonel Kyaw Kyaw Oo, says the text was compiled using “documentary photos” with the aim of “revealing the history of Bengalis”.

“It can be found that whenever a political change or an ethnic armed conflict occurred in Myanmar those Bengalis take it as an opportunity,” the book reads, arguing that Muslims took advantage of the uncertainty of Myanmar’s nascent democratic transition to ignite “religious clashes”.

Reuters was unable to contact Kyaw Kyaw Oo for comment.

Reuters examined some of the photographs using Google Reverse Image Search and TinEye, tools commonly used by news organisations and others to identify images that have previously appeared online. Checks were then made with the previously credited publishers to establish the origins of those images.

Of the 80 images in the book, most were recent pictures of army chief Min Aung Hlaing meeting foreign dignitaries or local officials visiting Rakhine. Several were screengrabs from videos posted by Rohingya militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

Of eight photos presented as historical images, Reuters found the provenance of three to be faked and was unable to determine the provenance of the five others.

One faded black-and-white image shows a crowd of men who appear to be on a long march with their backs bent over. “Bengalis intruded into the country after the British Colonialism occupied the lower part of Myanmar,” the caption reads.

The photo is apparently intended to depict Rohingya arriving in Myanmar during the colonial era, which ended in 1948. Reuters determined the picture is in fact a distorted version of a colour image taken in 1996 of refugees who had fled the genocide in Rwanda. The photographer, Martha Rial, working for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won the Pulitzer Prize.

“While it is always disappointing to see your work misrepresented, I am not surprised,” said Rial in an email. “It has been used in propaganda before and, sadly, it will probably happen again.”

Sally Stapleton, the paper’s managing editor, deferred questions about the use of its photo to Rial.Sally Stapleton, the paper’s managing editor, deferred questions about the use of its photo to Rial.

Another picture, also printed in black-and-white, shows men aboard a rickety boat. “Bengalis entered Myanmar via the watercourse,” the caption reads.

Actually, the original photo depicts Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants leaving Myanmar in 2015, when tens of thousands fled for Thailand and Malaysia. The original has been rotated and blurred so the photo looks grainy. It was sourced from Myanmar’s own Ministry of Information.

Reporting by Poppy Elena McPherson; Additional reporting by Sam Aung Moon; Editing by Alex Richardson

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