“To be frank, I would rather be a property agent than a reporter. But if we don’t solve this problem during my time, my daughter will suffer the consequences.” Reuters reporter Kyaw Soe Oo on the Rohingya crisis
After his arrest, his wife, Chit Su Win, moved to Yangon from Rakhine State. She says she’s now concerned it is unsafe to return. Many in the Buddhist majority back home in Sittwe were furious that Kyaw Soe Oo had helped a reporting effort about crimes against Muslims. He and Wa Lone have received a torrent of death threats on social media since their arrest.
“Because of the story, people in Rakhine really do not like my husband now,” she said of the massacre article.
While Lewis conducted interviews in Sittwe last October, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo took a ferry and got motorbike taxis to head further into the state’s interior. On the way, Kyaw Soe Oo’s driver mentioned that 10 Muslim men had been killed in the area. He and Wa Lone switched rides so that Wa Lone could hear the details. As they cut past rice paddies, the wind whipping in their faces, the driver leaned back and shouted answers. There’d been 10 men killed by soldiers and a group of villagers with swords, he said.
The news was related in a matter-of-fact way. “He doesn’t like Muslims,” Wa Lone later explained. “I don’t think he thought this is a big crime – an issue of morality or something.”
They arrived at the village, called Inn Din, and others there repeated the story.
Lewis remembers Wa Lone calling him and saying: “These guys are telling us there is a grave and they are offering to show us. I’m not sure if we should do that.” Lewis added: “He was scared.
The grave was hard to find. The reporters walked through bushes and noticed newly cut branches marking a path on the side of a hill. There were barely buried bones on the ground, said Wa Lone. There were other bones scattered nearby. Wa Lone thought to himself that a dog may have been gnawing on them.
During his trip, a villager gave Wa Lone a photograph of 10 Rohingya men kneeling with more than a dozen men behind them, many holding assault rifles. The 10 had been detained by security forces.
After returning to Yangon, Wa Lone obtained another picture. This one showed the bodies of the 10 Rohingya men in a shallow grave. It was the same men, in the same t-shirts, but now some were face down in the dirt, limbs splayed, others with mouths agape toward the heavens, and blood everywhere.
In the photograph of the men kneeling, there’s a man at the back left corner of the frame with a ball cap on backwards and holding a gun with what looked like the number eight written in Burmese on the stock. It was a clue: At least some of the men in the image belonged to Myanmar’s police battalion 8 – the same battalion as that of Lance Corporal Naing Lin, the man Wa Lone would later meet on the evening of Dec. 12.
Wa Lone, said Slodkowski, grew “obsessed” with identifying the policemen in the photograph. At the time, the United Nations was alleging widespread abuses by the military in Rakhine State; the government responded by saying it would look into any evidence presented to it.
“Let’s give them evidence then,” Slodkowski recalls Wa Lone saying.
Wa Lone devised ways to meet Battalion 8 police members so he could ask for phone numbers of other officers. He plugged those numbers into the search bar of Facebook, which is wildly popular in Myanmar, said Slodkowski. He looked for faces that matched those in the background of the photograph of the 10 Rohingya men.
Wa Lone also printed an enlargement of at least one face from among the armed men standing behind the kneeling Rohingya, said Slodkowski. Wa Lone took the image to other officers of Battalion 8 and asked whether they recognized their comrade.
His pursuit of the members of Battalion 8 would ultimately land him in jail, according to testimony in his trial.
A Battalion 8 captain named Moe Yan Naing testified that the police planned to “entrap” Wa Lone. He said he was present when a police brigadier general told Naing Lin to call Wa Lone, arrange the meeting and plant documents on the reporter before arresting him.
The brigadier general, he testified, issued a blunt threat to the cops: “If you don’t get Wa Lone, you will go to jail.”
After saying so in court, Moe Yan Naing was sentenced to a year in prison for violating police discipline, a development that police said was unrelated to his testimony.
The prosecution also presented police witnesses who backed the official version of events: They said the two reporters were detained, already in possession of the documents, during a random search at a police checkpoint.