Rohan Royal first contacted me around dinnertime on Oct. 26. The profile picture that came with his Facebook message request showed two armed men holding guns. “Hello,” was all he wrote.
According to his profile, we had no mutual friends, didn’t attend the same schools or live in the same city, but I responded with a “hello” in turn and asked how he found me.
Writing in poor English, Royal said he was a Rohingya student living in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group whose members have lived in Rakhine state for centuries. Most of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority population considers the Rohingya to be immigrants, and in 1982, the government stripped them of citizenship ― effectively rendering them stateless and limiting their access to jobs, medical care and education.
The Rohingya have faced decades of persecution at the hands of Myanmar’s military and Buddhist hardliners. Tensions escalated dramatically in August after a small group of Rohingya extremists, known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, attacked police and army posts in the state. Buddhist militants retaliated by burning down villages, arresting and torturing men, raping women and killing children.
Since then, more than 624,000 of the 1.1 million Rohingya in Rakhine have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. It’s unclear how many Rohingya exactly remain in Rakhine, but the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva estimates that more than 300,000 are in desperate need of aid.
Royal said he was one of the Rohingya who remained behind, and explained that he’d found me while searching Facebook for aid workers. “I resherch donation worker at them i got ur facebook,” he wrote.
I’m a freelance journalist, which my Facebook page clearly states. But since I have been closely following recent news reports about worsening violence against the Rohingya, his messages piqued my interest.
I received another Facebook request a few hours later from a man named Kyawwinnaing. He, too, introduced himself as a Rohingya student living in Rakhine. “Our villagers [are] very very poor and I need your help,” he wrote.
The next morning, there was another one. Ro Kyaw Tun Naing said he was a schoolteacher in one of the remaining Rohingya villages, and had been one of Kyawwinnaing’s teachers. He also said he works for a local humanitarian agency. His English, albeit choppy, was sufficient to maintain a conversation. I asked what was happening in his village. “Facing .Arrsted.Raping .burning .on rohingya pepole in Rakhine state now.I am find .My family are safe,” he replied.
I wanted to know more ― whether these men were who they claimed to be, and if they were, why they were contacting a freelance journalist based in Seattle. Reporting from Rakhine is thin at best, since the military bars access to journalists and has only let a few relief agencies in.
These exchanges sent me on a reporting quest that has given me a digital window into life in Rakhine state, and it has become increasingly clear that the Rohingya are looking for social media users in other countries to share their stories with the rest of the world.
None of the men who contacted me are using their real names online, out of fear that public postings under their Rohingya names would make them government targets. Kyaw Tun Naing says he has already been arrested once for using Facebook to share news about the Rohingya, and he’s haunted by the idea that this could happen again. Other Rohingya activists have reported online harassment and have even received death threats over the phone. I now know their real identities, but am withholding that information to protect their safety.
In our ongoing correspondence, the three men painted a grim picture of the situation in Rakhine. I’ve woken up to messages containing images and videos of Rohingya villages being torched at night by the military, operating under the cover of darkness. “Breaking news,” Royal would write, before sending over a media file and a description of an event.
They say Myanmar’s army has continued to raid Rohingya villages and set fire to abandoned homes, even after Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement on Nov. 23 to allow hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees to return home.
They have sent images purporting to document crimes by Myanmar’s army since violence broke out at the end of August — photos of Rohingya men and women who had been beaten, shot or raped. The messages also suggest that Rohingya villages lack access to basic necessities like food and medicine.
Early on, Royal sent me photos that he said showed villagers selling their home goods to buy food and medicine in a nearby town. He claimed a video showed a Rohingya man with cancer who had sold all his possessions to pay for surgery, only to be dropped by the doctor when he could no longer pay.
These traumatic images are impossible to verify and extremely graphic, and are not included here for those reasons. But they have left me wondering whether the Rohingya who have fled will ever feel safe again in Rakhine. According to the men, Rohingya still abandon their villages out of fear each day. Kyaw Tun Naing told me that Rohingya are leaving his village on a daily basis, hoping to find food and jobs in Bangladesh.
Kyaw Tun Naing himself refuses to go. He fears living in Bangladesh as a refugee would be even more difficult than staying in Myanmar. Kyawwinnaing, too, doesn’t want to leave. “I am Rohingya. I am not Bengali,” he explained, adding that he hopes more relief agencies will eventually gain access to Rakhine.
Facebook has become a breeding ground for fake news in Myanmar ever since violence intensified over the summer. The social media platform is so prevalent in the country that some people believe it is the internet. Myanmar’s government and military deny the reports about atrocities in Rakhine ― even civilian leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been on the defensive, dismissing them as “misinformation.”
Some government accounts have taken advantage of Facebook’s reach to push that line in a seemingly coordinated effort, claiming that the Rohingya are burning down their own villages or distributing photos of soldiers’ bodies that were actually taken during other conflicts.
Kyaw Tun Naing said those government reports prompted him to reach out after he joined Facebook in September. “Myanmar media [do not] write true news,” he told me. “Rohingya people don’t have journalist. And Rakhine state [has] no free media.”
While Royal, Kyawwinnaing and Kyaw Tun Naing say they can not move freely from village to village, $ 3 can buy them 2 gigabytes of data to use on their mobile phones to keep abreast of news and be in touch with other Rohingya living in Rakhine or outside of the country. They share photos, videos and news among themselves before they pass the message on.
Without eyes on the ground in Rakhine, I knew I wouldn’t be able to fully verify their accounts, but I did everything I could to confirm their identities.
One of my trusted Rohingya sources spoke with Royal and confirmed his identity. I tried verifying Kyaw Tun Naing’s involvement with the humanitarian agency, but my email to the group’s main branch in Yangon bounced back as undeliverable.
While I asked the men to send photos from their villages and their day-to-day lives, they often just sent me any photos they had. I ran each one through a reverse image search, and some appeared to be originals. For example, there were no perfect matches for a photo of a bullet wound on a man’s back, confirming that this image wasn’t already published elsewhere, and Google’s reverse image search’s best guess for the location of the image was “Rakhine state.”
In other instances, multiple people sent me the same photo, suggesting that those images are circulating among Rohingya activists connected on Facebook. Ro Kyaw Tun Naing sent me a handful of those, including photos that appeared to show the arrest of two men. I recognized the men’s faces from a Rohingya activist’s Twitter post; they were reportedly attacked by extremists in a village in northern Rakhine state.
Even though I’ve grown to believe and trust these men and their stories, I can’t be completely sure they are who they say they are. One thing is clear, however: No matter how many probing questions I’ve asked, the men have not grown tired of them.
Corresponding with these Rohingya men in the past few weeks has brought a different sense of routine to my life. I’ve grown used to the ping of my WhatsApp and the chirp of my Messenger notifications in the morning and late afternoons. I feel relieved when read receipts on my Messenger conversations or blue check marks on the WhatsApp chats appear, indicating that they are still safe, and alive.
It has also raised new questions for me about working on stories about conflict-ridden countries. As journalists, we are encouraged to be objective in our reporting, to not meddle in the lives of people that we cover. But seeing these photos and videos and forming relationships with these men elicits in me the very human response of wanting to help.
To me, the greatest paradox of the use of social media in the Rohingya crisis is that complete strangers can tell me about their plight, but there’s no way for me to help directly. Yet, in a different context, anyone can start a crowdfunding campaign to help defray medical costs, and a stranger sympathetic to their situation could donate money directly toward that.
In the last few weeks, I’ve marveled at how democratizing the internet can be. For the Rohingya, it offers freedom from reality. They can read about the international community’s response to the crisis and can connect with family and friends displaced by violence. An Facebook friend request, if accepted, gives them the ability to live vicariously through a stranger — a stranger who coincidentally has the privilege to help shed light on their stories.