Is democracy creating more trouble?
Encouraged by a rabidly irresponsible nationalist press, the Buddhist nationalists that constitute Burma's majority population, along with the ethnic Rakhine minority, have adopted a siege mentality that Rohingyas, whom they call "Bengali" illegal immigrants and terrorists, are causing the problems in their otherwise peaceful country.
The earlier anti-Rohingya campaign has now become an anti-Muslim movement. Victims of fresh violence that broke out on October 23 in central Arakan state are ethnic Kaman of Islamic faith. According to the United Nations, more than 28,000 people have been displaced in the past seven days – 27,300 of them Muslims, mostly Kaman. Thousands of homes have been razed and more than 100 people have been killed, according to most estimates.
Similarly, Human Rights Watch released satellite images on October 26 showing a vast land area in Kyauk Pru township in Arakan State being burned to the ground. The organization said thousands of Muslims were floating in the sea, while many have landed on the banks of islands and ports in life-threatening condition. Aid organizations, international media around the world, and the once-exiled Burmese media are reporting the worsening persecution.
Quite contrary to what the world is witnessing collectively –that Muslims are the mass victims in the Arakan conflict – the Rakhine and Burmese majority continue to believe they are the victims. This is not to deny that Rakhines are not victims. In fact, many have been killed and many houses have been razed. It is undeniable, however, that Muslims constitute a much larger majority of victims and refugees.
Yet the majority population keeps repeating that Bengalis, even when the victims are not Rohingyas, are terrorists and troublemakers who fomented the violence and that therefore they and their religion must be suppressed. The majority do not accept that the violence must stop immediately, and that nobody deserves to be killed, tortured or expelled. They have not realized that the problems must be solved through political settlement.
The political effect of self-victimization is that it lends support to an anti-Muslim campaign which is already manifested in large-scale violence.
The immediate reason that Buddhist majority support the continuing violence is the domestic media, which has been publishing exceedingly biased news and nationalistic views, perpetuating public anxiety, feelings of insecurity and the sense of victimhood allegedly caused by 'Rohingya terrorists'.
In such a politicized environment, the first step to stop violence in Arakan state is to suspend the domestic journals, at least temporarily. It might sound quite bizarre to advocate the suspension of print journals in the new so-called "democratic" Burma. The ugly truth, however, is that the Burmese-language journals published are feeding misinformation and subjective perspectives that are turning the increasingly polarized population into a mob that won't shy away from violence.
In Burma, the power of the newly unleashed domestic journals is immense. The people, previously starved of information for decades, find newly established publications to be an oasis. In major cities and even small towns, newsstands are now everywhere. New journals keep appearing one after another, with an audience ranging from rickshaw drivers to government officials.
The two most popular journals in the country are the Weekly Eleven and the Voice Weekly. They are also leading a media war against those whom they call "Bengali" illegal immigrants. These journals are not celebrating freedom of expression with responsibility. Even though the ideal of freedom of expression, which ideologically permits their political existence in a reformed Burma, is derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ideal of human rights for all is nowhere close to their culture, ethics or political aspirations.
Instead, they are pitting Buddhist Rakhines against the Muslim Rohingyas, who are altogether seen as 'foreigners' and a national security threat, however unproven. They support the former's political interests at the expense of the latter, who have already taken the brunt of the abuse. Such a nationalistic stance is responsible for the people's delusion.
For example, The Voice Weekly published a story on October 27 (one day after Human Rights Watch released satellite images), that was entirely based on a single Rakhine source of information, the Arakan League for Democracy. It referred to a simplistic but politically motivated statement by the party and cited a comment by Myo Kyaw, secretary of the Arakan League, saying that a foreign organization, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, had ignited the conflict. The journal then weaved into the story a previous announcement by President Thein Sein that made it appear that the government and the Arakan League were in agreement against international organizations.
Similarly, the Weekly Eleven ran two opinion pieces on October 28th (two days after the Human Rights Watch report and the same day the UN said almost all of the displaced victims are Muslims). Both pieces proceed from a Rakhine perspective that denies any chance for coexistence between Rakhines and Rohingyas. The authors accuse Rohingyas (and Muslims) as the cause of the problems.
The second article, titled "Who pulled the strings from behind?" accused Rohingyas of initiating ethno-religious conflicts to realize their 'ethnic dream'. It cited 30 Muslim religious leaders from home and abroad as visiting Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships during the conflict. The narratives suggest that Muslims perpetrated the violence, never mind the fact that those running desperately for their lives are Muslims.
Such biases and perspectives are not exceptions, they are the rule. Since June this year, both journals have consistently printed and posted explicitly anti-Rohingya news and views.
Collectively, the journals fan popular misunderstandings and prejudices that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants despite living in the region for hundreds of years, that they are source of the problems, that they started the conflict by setting their own homes on fire and ran away, and that they are responsible for violence. The publications alleged that the Rakhines, not Rohingyas or Muslims, are the victims of the violence.
By repeating the arguments about victimhood and "Rohingya guilt", the journals mask the ugly truth that it is predominantly Muslims who are facing the violence. They continue to bombard peoples' minds with anti-Rohingya views and accusations at the expense of the opportunity to call for ending the violence.
Given that the two journals have become the most popular in the country regardless of quality and ethics, the audience uncritically accepts the information and views presented. They disregard all alternative information and views as false and manipulated. As such, the Burmese are having trouble accepting what the outside world is witnessing.
To be fair, the violence is not all fomented by Rakhines. There have been attacks and counterattacks from both sides, with both taking casualties. But no one can deny that Muslims experience much worse attacks than their Rakhine counterparts. Otherwise, the 27,300 out of 28,000 displaced people in the past few days would not have been Muslims.
Whoever started the conflict, there is no justification for the media to side with one group to support the expulsion of another. Yet, the most popular and influential journals in Burma have failed miserably. Instead of stopping violence, they have fueled the conflict by deceiving the public, by perpetuating public hatred of Rohingyas and by provoking fear, insecurity and victimhood, driving the public to legitimize violence and support angry mobs.
Thus, the first step to stop violence in Arakan state shold be to temporarily suspend the Burmese language journals, which are shaping public opinion towards mob culture. Otherwise, people will continued to be fooled so as to keep rallying for violence. This is not a call to back away from freedom and democracy for a return to military rule. This is a call that unethical and abusive media costing human lives and dignity must be suspended.
(Sai Latt is a Burmese and a PhD Candidate at Simon Fraser University in Canada.)