The Long Read: Radio Silence- The Media and Myanmar

Image credit: Claude TRUONG-NGOC

In 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD Party won a landslide victory, claiming 86% of the vote. Despite the military still holding significant power across Myanmar, the first democratic elections in twenty five years were hailed as a victory across the world. Freedom reigned; after nearly a century of unrest, Myanmar seemed to be triumphing and the media celebrated the nation as a bastion of 21st century liberation. 

The story of the Nobel Peace Prize winner is a well publicised one. Daughter of the ‘father of modern Myanmar’, Aung San, the diplomat was educated at Oxford and worked for the UN. She came to prominence during the 1988 Uprisings; her message of non-violence and support for overthrowing military rule resulting in house arrest the following year. Her time as a political prisoner was well-documented: Suu Kyi’s decision to stay in Myanmar (and thus be imprisoned) had personal implications; separated from her children and husband, her isolation became a symbol of the injustices of Myanmar. To many, she was an icon of a struggle for freedom; her appeal was wide-ranging, both within the country and internationally. 

Simultaneously, Myanmar’s history is marked by increasingly complicated political changes. A series of ill-prepared generals ruled the latter half of the twentieth century guided increasingly by superstition and suspicion: stories of generals shooting images of themselves to prevent assassination, and changing the currency to denominations of lucky numbers prevail in modern histories of the country. Natural disasters (most notably Cyclone Nagris in 2008) have ravished the countries; many areas are still attempting to recover, with malnutrition widespread. Importantly, Myanmar should not be fetishised as some bastion of mythical orientalist wonder: its mystery lies solely in oppressive political regimes, and any discussion of the country should be framed as such.

Nonetheless, this is a nation with impressive rights for women; maternity leave is generous, and occupational opportunities are impressively equal between sexes. It is a nation of various states, each with individual ethnic groups, languages, and cultures. Its diversity, then, is its strength. Except in one case. 

Whilst journalists were writing coy editorials about the power of democracy in Myanmar, they were also turning a blind eye to what essentially amounts to ethnic cleansing. In the north-west of Myanmar, the state of Rakhine is home to the Rohingya, a Muslim group with disputed ancestry. To the Myanmar elite, they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh; to others, they are an ethnically Burmese group. Imperial influence here is undeniable - typically, as the British left, such issues became the responsibility of the new government. Of course, there is not room for every complication of internal south-east Asian politics to be covered in their depth in broadsheets. However, the issue with the Rohingya is something more than bureaucracy. 

The first hint of Aung San Suu Kyi’s racism in mainstream media was in a BBC interview in with Mishal Husain last year. That ever-lurking arbiter of public justice, the left-on-mic, caught her saying ‘no one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim’ in response to the journalist's questions. Needless to say, this was met with criticism in the British media. What was more telling than the condemnation, however, was the surprise - the Oxford educated woman, and supposed symbol of twenty-first century democracy, was not meant to say things like this. Fundamentally, the links between, and the massacre and ghettoisation of the Rohingya were not made. 

It is difficult to discern what is truthfully happening in Rakhine state. The Rohingya are not entitled to state help as they are not technically viewed as Burmese nationals: malnutrition, high mortality rates and child marriage are common; displacement widespread. Villages have been burnt in their entirety by security services, resulting in homelessness, or risking the dangerous trip across the border into Bangladesh. The government, of course, denies the atrocities were in any way planned by them. However, a UN report on the topic has suggested the actions of the security forces amount to ethnic cleansing; the targeted attacks are crimes against humanity. In October, an organised group of Rohingya attacked a police force on the border. This was used as an excuse for a further crackdown: initial reports of a few casualties was recently revised to more than 1,000 deaths. According to the Financial Times, ’as of early February, about 1,500 houses in 30 villages had been torched and nearly 70,000 Rohingya had fled to Bangladesh’. The fact such horror could go relatively unnoticed by mainstream media is terrifying. 

Of course, Suu Kyi is not totally to blame. Her personal power is limited to prime minister as her sons are British; the 25% military hold over the Lower House of Parliament is indicative of the junta’s lingering power. However, Suu Kyi’s comments, and the refusal to acknowledge the Rohingya as a defined group demonstrate a wider cultural problem. There is a systematic denial here that amounts to racism: and this racism has led to human rights abuses. Posters criticising Suu Kyi often show her wearing a headscarf and equating ‘sympathy for Muslims’ with poor leadership. Evidently, there are societal, normalised discriminatory practices that make aid for the Rohingya all the more unlikely.

Suu Kyi’s reforms in other areas have been too slow for some. However, her wide-ranging support almost dictates sensitivity- in order to please a nation of very different people, from the Yangon businessmen to the delta rice-farmers, radical change will be difficult, at least in the short term. However, bureaucratic criticism and the destitution of a race are two separate things. It would be morally unjust to contextualise this as just another slow development - the rhetoric (or lack thereof) regarding the official position of the Rohingya demonstrates something much more worrying.

Of course, commenting on Myanmar’s systematic oppression is complicated by the fact that I am a white, British, educated individual. Imposing politics informed by Western ideals is exactly the attitude that formed modern South East Asia. Nonetheless, murder on the basis of race is an issue that should not be clouded by navel-gazing. The horror of north-western Myanmar, and the media silence on the issue, is something that requires comment.

It seems, therefore, incredibly important that we are vigilant. The scenes in Rakhine state are terrifying: these people are stateless, and essentially voiceless. In an ever-more divisive and violent world, to be well-informed is powerful; to be vocal a necessity. The media silence on the issue is indicative of how little one can truly know. Such injustices must be happening elsewhere, and it is only through being active one can find out about such atrocities. Being aware of Human Rights Watch’s work, reading Al-Jazeera’s less ‘mainstream’ reports, questioning the news, and being observant is the first step towards international pressure. 

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