Debunked: how a video of 'persecuted Rohingyas' proved to be a military exercise

Screengrab of the video (below).
Screengrab of the video (below).

Social media users were quick to decry what they perceived to be video evidence of further persecution of Rohingya Muslims at the hands of Burmese authorities. However, in reality, the footage actually shows a training exercise undertaken by the Malaysian special forces.

The footage in question garnered more than 3 million views on Facebook and has been shared more than 100,000 times. It shows a strange scene — a group of young men are standing in muddy water up to their torsos, completely covered by a strange, cage-like structure roughly woven together out of branches, which is draped over their heads and shoulders. A man who seems to be keeping guard over them stands precariously on the branches, with a large stick in his hand. Despite these uncomfortable circumstances, the men are singing in unison with quite a bit of gusto.

People shared the video along with a caption claiming that the footage documented Burmese authorities inflicting yet another torment upon the country’s Rohingya minority “because they are Muslim”. The caption also called on people to share the video as much as possible as a way of denouncing these abuses.

However, in actuality, the video wasn’t filmed in Burma, but the Malaysian jungle. Indeed, according to a Malaysian security expert (who prefers to remain anonymous), this video shows a training exercise carried out by the GGK (Grup Gerak Khas), the Malaysian special forces:

The men in the video are undergoing a test meant to prove their physical and mental endurance to see if they have what it takes for the special forces. The special forces operate almost entirely in the jungle, in extreme conditions. It’s an elite commando and they need to be able to face any ordeal. The lyrics of the song that they are singing mention "semangat Malaysia", or the spirit of Malaysia.

>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: Video showing 'Muslim' toddler tortured by 'Buddhist' in Burma not all it seems

It’s not the first time that people have misappropriated videos filmed elsewhere in southeast Asia and claimed that they show the mistreatment of Rohingyas in Burma. Camille Cuisset is the coordinator of the Paris-based organisation “Info Birmanie” (Burma Info). She says that this is the result of both social media culture and recent events that have occurred in the country.

"A lack of real news means people started to rely on fake news"

As more people get access to the internet, we’ve been seeing more and more sharing of fake or misappropriated photos or videos. Now, anyone can relay false information.

However, I think it is also important to point out that, even in Burma, we are now talking more and more about the abuses carried out on Rohingyas. The internet reflects that.

I also think that fake information and videos flourished during a four-month period starting in October 2016 when the Burmese military blocked all journalists and NGO workers from entering Arakan state. The military was carrying out a military operation in Arakan during that time — one marked by unprecedented violence [Editor’s note: An estimated 18,000 Rohingya were displaced according to Human Rights Watch]. I think that, because there was no news coming out of the region, some people started relying on fake news.

Even if the abuses were real, fake and misappropriated images never help the situation and can often undermine the cause they are supposed to be defending. But, luckily, there are some limits to these fake videos. We are keeping vigilant, while underscoring the need to keep talking about it.

>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: Burma displaces thousands of Rohingya minority in ‘security sweep’

On March 24, the UN voted to send an investigation team to Burma to shine a light on what exactly happened during the military operation. The Burmese ambassador to the Human Rights Council, however, denounced this decision, claiming this type of action was unacceptable. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Burma, are considered by the UN to be one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.