Democracy Lab

The Freedom to Hate

As sectarian violence lashes Burma, the media are using their newfound freedom for destructive ends.

This week's brutal religious violence in Burma's western Arakan state has cast a shadow on the country's democratic progress. Dozens of people have been killed and hundreds of homes destroyed as Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims clash near the Bangladeshi border in the country's worst sectarian violence in decades.

But even more shocking than the violence itself has been the public outpour of vitriol aimed at the Rohingya, the stateless minority group at the center of the conflict. Considered "illegal Bengali immigrants" by the government, they are denied citizenship and are widely despised within Burmese society. Anti-Rohingya views have swept both social and mainstream media, seemingly uniting politicians, human rights activists, journalists, and civil society from across Burma's myriad ethnic groups.

"The so-called Rohingya are liars," tweeted one pro-democracy group. "We must kill all the kalar," said another social media user. (Kalar is a racial slur applied to dark-skinned people from the Indian subcontinent.) Burmese refugees, who themselves have fled persecution, gathered at embassies across the world to protest the "terrorist" Rohingya invading their homeland. Even the prominent student leader Ko Ko Gyi, who played a key role in the 1988 democratic uprising, lambasted them as imposters and frauds.

No doubt Burma's nascent media freedom has played a key role in stirring religious tensions. Vast swathes of inflammatory misinformation are circulating inside Burma -- with mainstream media largely accusing Al Qaeda and "illegal Bengali terrorists" for staging the violence in a bid to spread Islam in Asia. Many allege that the Rohingya are burning their own houses in a bid for attention.

One paper published a graphic photo of the corpse of Thida Htwe, the Buddhist woman whose rape and murder allegedly by three Muslim men instigated the violence, prompting President Thein Sein to suspend the publication under Burma's censorship laws. These are the same papers that in recent months have openly criticized the government for the first time since a nominally civilian administration took over last year.

Ironically, this freedom has also led to a virulent backlash against foreign and exile media, who have reported on the plight of the Rohingya -- described by the UN as one of the most persecuted groups in the world. A leading national paper, The Weekly Eleven News Journal, has launched a campaign against exile media for their coverage of the crisis.

"Foreign media are now presenting bias [sic] reports on the clashes between Rakhine people and Bengali Rohingyas to destroy the image of Myanmar [Burma's official name -- ed.] and its people," warned Eleven Media Group in a statement. "Only Rohingyas killed Rakhine people and burned down their houses." Earlier this week they denounced New York Times reporter Thomas Fuller for citing hateful comments made against Rohingyas on their website.

While anti-Rohingya sentiments are not new to Burma, the attacks have taken on a more urgent and egregious nature with greater access to information. In November last year, a social media campaign whipped up a tirade of animosity against the BBC for a report (published one year earlier) that had identified the Rohingya as residents of Arakan state.

In the wake of the latest violence, a number of online campaigns have been set up to coordinate attacks against news outlets that dare to report on their plight. Angry protesters rallied in Rangoon this week, brandishing signs reading "Bengali Broadcast Corporation" and "Desperate Voice of Bengali." The latter was a reference to my employer, the Democratic Voice of Burma, the Norway-based broadcaster that has made a name for itself among many Burmese as one of the most reliable sources of information about their country. This weekend DVB faced the biggest cyber-attack on its website in the organization's history, while its Facebook page is still under constant assault from people issuing threats and posting racist material. It is not without irony that an organization once hailed as a vehicle for free speech has become the target of censorship by the very people it sought to give a voice.

As International Crisis Group explains, the violence is both a consequence of, and threat to, Burma's political transition. However, what they wrongly assume is that the "irresponsible, racist, and inflammatory language" circulating on the internet is likely to be resolved through discussion in the national media. The few balanced voices -- let alone those representing the stateless minority -- are vastly outnumbered by news outlets spouting simplistic, anti-Muslim rhetoric.

The ongoing crisis illustrates the need for Burma to embrace not only independent, but also responsible and inclusive journalism. In order to facilitate this transition, the government must take concrete steps to address the underlying dispute surrounding the Rohingya. The sheer level of racism against them in Burmese society -- enforced by a government policy of discrimination and abuse -- lies at the core of the matter.

This week, a politician from the military-backed USDP party called for a "King Dragon Operation" -- a 1978 military operation run by dictator Ne Win to stamp out the Rohingya population from Northern Arakan state. Meanwhile, reports of army complicity in attacks on Muslim homes are growing after a state of emergency was declared on Sunday. Immigration minister Khin Yi has again reiterated that "there are no Rohingya in Burma," while Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy continues to carefully sidestep the hot-button issue as she begins her global tour. State media has also fanned tensions by using the racial slur kalar in their official appeal for calm after ten Muslim pilgrims were murdered to avenge Thida Htwe's death.

While the government has taken ostensible steps to calm the violence -- including publishing a retraction for the racial slur -- it is far from sufficient. Nor is invoking draconian censorship laws a viable solution. There must be a rational public debate on the future of the Rohingya minority in Burma.

The issue is both sensitive and complex, but it cannot be ignored. Political leaders, especially Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, along with the international community, have an obligation to drive this process. Failure to do so threatens to unravel Burma's democratic reform at a time when it cannot afford to regress.

STR/AFP/GettyImages

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