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.