FRONTLINE: Myanmar's Killing Fields
Airs Tuesday, May 8, 2018 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV
—FRONTLINE Uncovers New Accounts of Atrocities Against Myanmar’s Rohingya Minority. Documentary Also Investigates Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s Role in the Crisis—
Children, ages five and six, with their throats slit. Babies thrown into fires. Mass rape of women and children. Entire villages burned to the ground.
On Tuesday, May 8, the PBS series FRONTLINE will premiere U.S. television’s most comprehensive investigation of the Myanmar military’s violent crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority — an effort that has been described by the UN as having the “hallmarks of genocide.”
With secret footage filmed by a network of citizen activists, and firsthand accounts from victims and their families, "Myanmar’s Killing Fields" depicts an orchestrated campaign to target civilians, state-sanctioned violence, and mass murder.
The film investigates the role of Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar, in the crisis. The Nobel Laureate was once seen as Myanmar’s hope and a beacon for democracy — including by President Barack Obama, who lifted all sanctions on the country in 2016.
But Suu Kyi, who has continued to defend her country from international criticism, has now been accused of standing by as her country’s military led an operation that killed thousands of civilians.
“It was obvious she saw the Rohingyas as not part of Myanmar,” former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson tells FRONTLINE, describing a heated confrontation with Suu Kyi, his longtime friend, that led him to step down in protest earlier this year from a Myanmar advisory board on the crisis.
Muslim Rohingyas have been living in Myanmar’s Rakhine State for generations, but the government views many of them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
With shocking footage filmed by citizen activists, “Myanmar’s Killing Fields” tells the story of an orchestrated campaign against Rohingya Muslims in majority-Buddhist Myanmar going back more than 5 years — long before their exodus became world news.
“As we are not getting justice in the country, even though it was risky to film, I did it to help my people,” says a member of the network who goes by the codename Sabo.
FRONTLINE spent six months attempting to independently corroborate the footage and other videos, interviewing scores of witnesses, comparing their accounts, and cross-checking them with human rights investigators.
But despite the mounting evidence, the Myanmar military insists that its campaign was simply a counter-insurgency “clearance operation” targeted against a militant Islamist Rohingya group, ARSA, that had attacked and killed security forces at police and army bases.
UN High Commissioner Zeid al Hussein disagrees, telling FRONTLINE, “This was a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”
In “Myanmar’s Killing Fields,” the victims of brutal violence tell their stories: “My five-year-old was thrown into the river,” says Mumtaz Begum, who survived a massacre at Tula Toli. “I had a two-year-old baby on my hip. They grabbed the baby and threw him in the fire … As they raped me, my daughter was screaming, so they macheted her three times.”
FRONTLINE producer Evan Williams (“Hunting Boko Haram”) uncovers accounts that military commanders across Rakhine State threatened Rohingya villagers with death, using nearly identical language, in August of 2017, if they refused to apply for new identity documents mandated by the government.
FRONTLINE also identifies a Myanmar soldier, Sergeant Ba Kyaw, who villagers say participated in the massacre of more than 100 people in the village of Monu Para later that month.
The film also shines new light on Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to the crisis.
For the first time, UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Yanghee Lee speaks out about what happened when she confronted Suu Kyi with accounts of Rohingyas being killed.
“She was becoming very, very defensive and she was saying these were all made-up stories—‘UN is so one-sided, they are not helping the situation,’” says Lee, who was later barred from the country. “I said, ‘I just want to ask you that I need more access’ … And she looked at me and she said, ‘If you continue the narrative of the UN, you know, you might not get that access’ … I couldn’t believe my ears and I thought, ‘She must be kidding me.’”
Richardson also describes his heated conversation with Suu Kyi: “I said, ‘Look. My own government, the secretary of state, says it's ethnic cleansing.’ And she exploded,’” Richardson tells FRONTLINE, adding, “that's when we had a huge altercation. I thought if we were closer, she would hit me … That's when I realized she had changed. She had gone from a human rights heroine, a beacon of democracy, to a politician catering to the military.”
Today, almost one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are living in the world’s largest refugee camp across the border in Bangladesh. “Myanmar’s Killing Fields” is a vivid look at what drove them there.
“We were a family of 9,” 14-year old Abdulsalam Ullah tells FRONTLINE. “I am the only survivor. They killed them all.”
"Myanmar’s Killing Fields" premieres Tuesday, May 8, 2018 on PBS and online. A version of the documentary will also air on Channel 4’s Dispatches in the UK on May 14.
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A FRONTLINE production with Evan Williams Productions and Mongoose Pictures in association with Channel 4. The producer and reporter is Evan Williams. The documentary was filmed and directed by Patrick Wells. The senior producer is Dan Edge. The executive producer for FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.