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 Fieldsdepicts an orchestrated campaign to target civilians, state-sanctioned violence, and mass murder.
The film investigates the role ofAung 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 Fieldstells 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.”
InMyanmar’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 onAung San Suu Kyi’s response to the crisis. For the first time,UN Special Rapporteur on MyanmarYanghee Lee speaks out about what happened when she confrontedSuu Kyiwith 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 Fieldsis 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 Fieldspremieres Tuesday, May 8, at 10/9c on PBS and online at pbs.org/frontline. A version of the documentary will also air on Channel 4’sDispatchesin the UK on May 14.
CreditsMyanmar’s Killing Fieldsis 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.
About FRONTLINEFRONTLINE, U.S. television’s longest running investigative documentary series, explores the issues of our times through powerful storytelling. FRONTLINE has won every major journalism and broadcasting award, including 89 Emmy Awards and 20 Peabody Awards. Visit pbs.org/frontline and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblrand Google+ to learn more. FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS. Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Abrams Foundation, the Park Foundation, the John and Helen Glessner Family Trust and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund with major support from Jon and Jo Ann Hagler on behalf of the Jon L. Hagler Foundation.