The international community has ratcheted up its condemnation against the country’s military and its Nobel laureate leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, for a crackdown which has sent an estimated 688,000 Rohingya fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.
In response, authorities have all but sealed off Rakhine state, where the alleged atrocities occurred. The United Nations’ human rights investigator, Yanghee Lee, has been barred from entering Burma, along with a three-person UN fact finding mission. Journalists and independent observers have been similarly blocked from accessing large areas of Rakhine. In December, two reporters for Reuters were arrested in Rangoon (Yangon) while reporting on the Rohingya crisis, and face 14 years in jail.
But in late January, a curious group of journalists—including a Canadian radio host who was arrested last year on hate speech charges, and a San Francisco-based musician who has warned that Rakhine is the final front in the fight against a global Islamic threat—were granted wide-ranging access to the area.
Rick Heizman, a music researcher with a long-time interest in Burma, and Kevin Johnston, an Ontario-based journalist who runs the Freedom Report website—and who was charged last year with “wilful promotion of hatred” for “numerous incidents reported to police,” according to Peel Regional Police—traveled to Burma along with Johnston’s colleague Michael McCormick, for two weeks in late January.
On the Freedom Report, which bills itself as “The Truth, Raw and Politically Incorrect,” Johnston regularly assails Islam, has blamed Canada’s refugee policy for the spread of HIV, and labeled Black Lives Matter a “domestic terrorist” group. He has been criticized by members of Canada’s Muslim community.
Much of their time was spent traveling through Rakhine, shooting videos and interviewing people, in what they describe as an effort to correct the record on a conflict that has dominated global headlines.
As Burma’s government and military have become more isolated in their stance against the Rohingya, whom they insist are not citizens and have destroyed their own homes in a plot to gain international sympathy, they have shunned Western countries while turning to allies like Heizman to absolve them.
Heizman’s popularity in Burma, which has largely been driven by Facebook, also underscores the power of social media in legitimizing views which have continued to fuel hate speech against Muslims there.
Heizman published his first paper on the Rohingya in 2012 after communal violence erupted in Rakhine, but his interest in Burma dates back to the early 1980s when he made his first trip to the country, then ruled by a military dictatorship, as he’s said in interviews.
He became deeply involved in the country’s struggle for democracy, sitting on the board of a Myanmar advocacy group and taking part in school building trips.
Finding common cause with the plight of impoverished Rakhine Buddhists, Heizman’s views on the Rohingya appear to have sharpened over time, mirroring that of many in Burma who believe they are illegal immigrants threatening the Buddhist majority.
Heizman’s past efforts advocating against Burma’s previous military junta, which ruled the country until 2010, prove that he is not an apologist for the regime, he said, but in the current crisis he thinks the military is being unfairly maligned. In a Facebook interview with Johnston (who notes that he’s been suspended several times by the social media site), Heizman makes little effort to hide his disdain for the Rohingya or Islam.
As detailed news reports have documented grotesque allegations of rape, torture, and arbitrary killings of Rohingya at the hands of the military and Rakhine vigilantes—carried out in response to attacks on police posts by members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army—Heizman has pushed back vociferously.
“They weren’t sitting there raping Bengali women and so on. But every damn Bengali woman in the refugee camps is claiming rape now,” Heizman said in an appearance on Johnston’s radio-style show before the trip. “This is their biggest chance in life to get to the Western countries right now.”
Heizman and Johnston, like the Burmese government, reject the term “Rohingya” and instead refer to the stateless group as “Bengali,” insinuating they are interlopers from Bangladesh.
In recent months, Heizman’s popularity within Burma has skyrocketed. His Facebook page has nearly 27,000 followers, and his posts there are shared hundreds of times as positive comments pile up below.
The government, too, has embraced his ideas, particularly those that dismiss claims of violence suffered by the Rohingya. In October, the Myanmar Embassy in London submitted to U.K. lawmakers one of his papers explaining why people should fear the Rohingya and Islam (PDF).
During his last trip, he spoke at the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies, a think tank, and spoke to officials at the U.S. Embassy, the embassy confirmed.
Meanwhile, Burma has balked at condemnation from the international community, which has been clamoring for access to Rakhine state, to document what they say is evidence of ethnic cleansing and gross human rights abuses. In December, Médecins Sans Frontières estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed between Aug. 25 and Sept. 24. At least 730 were children below the age of 5, they said.
“I have repeatedly said that Myanmar needs to let [human rights] monitors, such as myself, the [UN fact finding mission] and international journalists in if they want to prove that Myanmar truly has nothing to hide. Access must be unfettered, and not some ‘guided-tour-like’ visits,” Lee, the UN human rights investigator, said by email, referencing the government organized trips that some diplomats have been brought on in recent weeks.
When Burma let in Heizman and Johnston’s group, aid workers, diplomats, and experts raised eyebrows that they were granted such extensive access. The three traveled from Sittwe, the Rakhine capital, to remote areas in the north of the state where they visited dozens of burned villages, they said during interviews. At one point they were escorted by members of the military, Heizman told this reporter.
Heizman made another trip to the country last fall, and was granted similarly wide-ranging access then, he said.
“People do not at all realize the gravity of what has been happening not just for years but for decades there. The Bengalis will kill again and again and again,” Heizman said in an interview.
Just how they were granted access is unclear. Heizman would say only that he knows people “pretty high up and down in the government,” on both the state and national levels who allowed him to travel freely.
“Our permission was full and unfettered there was no place I could not go within reason,” Heizman said.
Zaw Htay, a spokesman for the government, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Both Heizman and Johnston, who says Islam is a “military ideology,” admit that their access was granted in part because they are presenting a counter-narrative beneficial to Burma’s government.
“Being a native English speaker, that is certainly a skill that they need,” Heizman said. “They need a person like me to help with the good presentation.”
Experts say that legitimizing the government’s reports has the potential to further stoke tensions.
“Their involvement is likely to do further damage to Myanmar’s reputation, rather than providing an alternative narrative—especially if they are perceived to have any sort of official endorsement,” said Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst in Yangon.
Rohingya activists, meanwhile, have found their presence in Rakhine state jarring.
“All bigots and racists are welcome in Burma as long as you are against Rohingya,” Sam Naeem, a Rohingya activist and politician in Yangon, said by email.