When news came in early on the morning of 25 August that militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) had attacked police posts in northern Rakhine state, killing 12 people and ushering in a massive army crackdown, it did not take long for Myanmar’s new “information committee” to swing into action.
Myanmar has had other such committees in its history, as authoritarian rulers have sought to disseminate the truth as they saw it, as opposed to the version propagated by so-called enemies of the state. This one, a joint civil-military body, responded from an official Facebook page with breathless updates about “extremist Bengali terrorists”, alongside images of mangled corpses and World Food Programme biscuits touted as proof of aid workers abetting militants.
Humanitarian organisations said the statements – attributed to Aung San Suu Kyi – were putting the lives of aid workers in danger. Aid was halted. Bangladesh protested against the use of the word “Bengali”, used to imply Rohingya Muslims are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and summoned the Myanmar ambassador in Dhaka, according to a foreign office source. The word was scrubbed as the officially sanctioned term for the militants.
And then the words “state counsellor” – the Nobel laureate’s official government title – were quietly dropped from the name of the Facebook page. The move, made as allegations of a brutal army crackdown on the Arsa insurgency were mounting, raised the question: where is Aung San Suu Kyi?