Wa Lone on Reuters story on Myanmar ministers delivering aid to trapped Rohingya village
In September, a Reuters exclusive revealed that thousands of Rohingya Muslims in violence-racked northwest Myanmar were pleading with authorities for safe passage from two remote villages that are cut off by hostile Buddhists and running short of food. The story, by Wa Lone and Andrew R.C. Marshall, reported that fragile relations between Ah Nauk Pyin village and its Rakhine neighbors were shattered on Aug. 25, when deadly attacks by Rohingya militants in Rakhine State prompted a ferocious response from Myanmar’s security forces. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight, Wa Lone offers an inside look at how they reported the story.
Q. How did you land this scoop?
A. In early September, many Rohingya villages in Rathedaung have been burned down and numerous people have been displaced during the military counteroffensive. We learned that only five Rohingya villages remained in the whole Rathedaung township and two of those villages were particularly vulnerable – they were in the southern part of the township, far from the Bangladeshi border and surrounded by hostile Buddhist neighbours.
So we found telephone numbers of the trapped villagers through our sources on the ground in northern Rakhine. We started communicating with them directly by phone. That’s the only way we could contact them, because the Rakhine State government did not allow the news media to travel to that area.
The villagers complained about the lack of food, no access to healthcare and death threats from hostile Rakhine Buddhist neighbours. The United Nations and international aid groups had to stop supplying food to the Rohingya in Rakhine after escalation of violence and after the government suggested they had supported Rohingya Muslim insurgents.
Q. What types of reporting/sourcing were involved?
A. Once we obtained the phone numbers, we talked directly with the Rohingya stuck in their villages. We also spoke to their neighbours – the Rakhine Buddhist village leaders with direct knowledge of the situation. We tried to talk to a police officer directly in charge of the area, but he refused to comment. Still, we discussed it with two other police officers from Rathedaung township, police spokesman from the national headquarters, local government authorities and the secretary of the Rakhine state government. We consulted our findings with human rights monitors.
Q. What was the hardest part about reporting the story?
A. I think the hardest part of our reporting was the fact that we couldn’t travel to those villages. We had to rely solely on reporting by phone, finding out multiple sources from both communities to understand the situation on the ground.
Q. Why did you think this was an important story to tell our global readers and clients?
A. We have received videos from inside the Rohingya village showing hungry children lining up for a plate of plain rice porridge. The villagers told us they could run out of food within a week. We saw how they shared their food with each other. They are not allowed to leave the village to fish or get vegetables. And they have no way to access medical care or buy medicines. They have also been receiving death threats from neighbouring Rakhine villages. If conflict flared in these villages, they would have nowhere to run away. Many lives were at risk.
Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?
A. I’m really excited about journalism. I am reporting on this conflict in Myanmar which has morphed into the biggest humanitarian crisis in the region. There is always a back-story that needs to be told and we’re digging deep to expose it to the public. I don’t think there is a better profession than journalism for me.
Q. What is the focus of your job and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A. As a reporter at the Yangon Reuters bureau, I usually work on conflict stories with my colleagues in our small newsroom. I am very satisfied that I can do that kind of reporting, especially if our reporting can directly lead to the improvement of the situation for the people who are suffering. In this case, for example, after our story got published, senior Myanmar government officials quickly reacted and delivered humanitarian aid, promising the villagers to protect them against intimidation.
Q. What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A. Earlier this year we worked on a large investigative report on Rohingya villagers who told us about violations committed by the security forces during the military operation in Rakhine in the autumn of last year. Myanmar army has denied the allegations. It was satisfying, but also challenging because of the pressure on journalists working on this story in Myanmar.
Q. Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
A. I can’t. This is a great job. I have had so many news experiences and I’m challenged every day.