By Lakshna Mehta
In 2011, the military dictatorship of Myanmar dissolved itself and began the transition to becoming a democratic state. Since its opening up, the country has done much to improve its standing in the international community, from promoting tourism to hosting an international conference on the challenges of a free press.
The more the country opens up to the world, the more closely the world scrutinizes an issue the government has been trying to cover up: the tense relations between the Buddhist-Burmese and Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state in western Myanmar.
A recent manifestation of these tensions, which are a legacy of Myanmar’s days as a British colony, started on Jan. 9, 2014, in Duu Chee Yar Tan, a village near the border with Bangladesh.
According to a United Nations report, Buddhist mobs killed at least four dozen people in the village. Based on local news media accounts, a New York Times article reported that the violence erupted after monks belonging to an extremist group known as 969 began giving sermons calling for the expulsion of all the Rohingya.
The Associated Press first reported on the violence on Jan. 16, 2014, followed by a second report on Jan. 24. The New York Times also reported on the attacks on the same date. The Irrawaddy, a paper that recently returned to Myanmar after years of exile in Thailand, also covered the attack within the same timeline.
The incident provides an opportunity to examine some of the difficulties news organizations face while trying to report from the area, especially international news organizations like The New York Times. Access, government roadblocks, context, and language are among the challenges facing journalists covering the state of Rakhine and the Rohingya.
A mountain range separates the Rakhine state from the rest of Myanmar making it difficult to access the conflict-struck areas. Added to the isolation is the poor condition of roads.
“It takes journalists two to three days to travel and when they get there, the news and information is not good,” said Mai Democracy, editor of Chin World News, an ethnic media service in Myanmar.
Once at the scene, journalists sometimes are not allowed access. During the reporting of the attack in Duu Chee Yar Tan, The New York Times journalists were initially not allowed to enter the village even though Irrawaddy reporters were given permission to enter.
If granted access, the problem for international news agencies is the difficulty in understanding the context of stories, particularly for events that have a deep historical influence like the Buddhist-Muslim conflicts.
For example, the outside world sees the treatment of the Rohingya as a human rights issue. The Myanmar government and most of its citizens consider the Rohingya Muslims illegal immigrants because many of them are descendants of the Indians who were brought into the country by the British in the late 1800s. The Indians who were brought into Myanmar were mostly Muslim Bengalis, from what is now known as Bangladesh.
Regardless of whether the Rohingya migrated into Myanmar in the late 1800’s or more recently, they have all been denied citizenship by the Myanmar government. They are effectively stateless because Bangladesh also does not recognize them as citizens.
Nai Kasauh Mon, chief editor of Independent Mon News Agency, another ethnic media service in the country, said, “If you’re reporting only for one or two days, it is not enough. You need to spend more time.”
Presidential spokesman Ye Htut continues to deny the attacks, claiming to have no information on the killings. According to the same New York Times article quoted above, he has also suggested the attacks are being used as a cover-up for the killing of a police sergeant that occurred four days after the attack on Jan. 9, 2014.
Additionally, since taking over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Myanmar government announced that it would not allow the Buddhist-Muslim conflict to be on the organization’s agenda during its chairmanship.
The other difficulty lies in the fact that there is just one government official who speaks to the media - presidential spokesman Htut. Although information can be obtained from state-run websites, it is the same as speaking to Htut. Reporters are discouraged from gathering information through other sources.
“My journalist went to collect information on the military raid in the Rakhine state,” said Nan Paw Gay, editor-in-chief of Karen Information News, another ethnic media. “On his way back, he was followed by two vans.”
The incident scared the journalist enough for him to discontinue his line of questioning. “If journalists try to collect information on the military, it is dangerous and we are not free to do so,” Gay said.
Language and Hate Speech
There are over 100 languages spoken in Myanmar. Burmese is the official language and the only language taught in schools. Therefore, ethnic people with no access to education cannot speak or read Burmese. Their only mode of communication becomes the language of the ethnic group they are born into. Mon said only about 30 percent of the ethnic populations can read their own ethnic languages.
Consequently, reporting within and from ethnic non-Burmese speaking regions is difficult.
With Facebook becoming a source of information for citizens of the country, the prevalence of hate speech on Facebook is raising concerns.
Michael Pan, project director of Myanmar Media Lab, cited a study conducted by a group about hate speech in Myanmar regarding the Buddhist-Muslim conflicts. The number of hate posts on Facebook was tracked for eight weeks. The conclusion drawn from the study was that hate speech did not lead to any riots; they trailed the events.
“Communal violence posts on Facebook increase based on print coverage of conflicts,” Pan said.
As the decades-old conflict between the Burmese-Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims continues, journalists around the world continue to try to get accurate information out of the country. The question remains whether the government will address both the conflict and the challenges faced by both local and international journalists within the country. To date, the way the government has handled both the conflict and the needs of journalists have left many skeptical of the possibility of a free press for Myanmar.
Rakhine State Violence – 2014 Timeline
Jan 16 - First report of Buddhist mob attack (AP)
Jan 17 - Irrawaddy first report on mob attack; Govt. denies Buddhist mob attack (AP)
Jan 23 - UN Probe shows more than 40 Muslims killed (AP)
Jan 24 - Govt. rejects UN statement on killings (Irrawaddy and NYT)
Feb 28 - DWB expelled (AP)
March 1 - Govt. says DWB can stay (AP); Aftermath of attack (NYT)
March 13 - Consequences of DWB ban (NYT)
March 22 - State of emergency declared in Meikhtila (AP)
Lakshna Mehta is a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia where she studies Journalism and International Affairs