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.



No More Half Measures

A compromise solution that removes Syria's Bashar al-Assad but replaces him with a crony is now fully off the table. It's time for Washington to back the opposition.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous declared on Tuesday what the world has long known: Syria is in a state of civil war. Ladsous noted that the government of Syria has lost "some large chunks of territory," and contended that we are seeing "a massive increase in the level of violence," with the mostly peaceful opposition increasingly fighting back. The world, however, is at a loss for what to do. U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan lies stillborn, with the Syrian regime refusing to honor a ceasefire, the first and easiest step of Annan's diplomatic effort. Meanwhile, the international community remains reluctant to intervene decisively, even though more than 12,000 Syrians have died, tens of thousands more are refugees and internally displaced, and the Syrian regime is executing children and indiscriminately shelling civilians.

It is clear that the Obama administration has no appetite for another aggressive intervention in the Middle East. Washington's European allies, who led the campaign against Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, are consumed with their collapsing economies. Moscow, whose support is needed to make sanctions more comprehensive and to gain U.N. support for any intervention, openly backs the Bashar al-Assad regime and has made it clear it opposes support for the Syrian opposition. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed on Tuesday that Russia is sending attack helicopters to Syria -- hardly an action designed to promote peace.

Seemingly anything is better than Syria sliding into civil war, and now a tempting middle course has emerged: The Yemen Option.

As violence grew in Yemen in 2011, Washington worked with its regional allies to ease President Ali Abdullah Saleh out from his two-decade rule, with power going to his vice president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Using such a model for Syria -- so the theory goes -- the United States would broker a deal to ease Assad and perhaps a few of his top cronies out and pass power to another, less controversial member of his regime. Moscow has signaled it might be open to such a deal, which would require only hard diplomatic work, not force, to implement.

Such a Goldilocks approach, however, would neither satisfy the aspirations of the Syria people nor advance U.S. strategic interests. Syria, in the end, is fundamentally different from Yemen, and a negotiated solution cannot, and should not, allow Assad loyalists to remain in power. The better option is for the United States and its allies to back the Syrian opposition more aggressively.

Saleh ruled by playing off Yemen's many competing power centers rather than dominating the country. When the Arab Spring hit Yemen, the battle was between Saleh and rival Yemeni elites, and the resulting power handover -- though it didn't happen overnight -- simply replaced an unpopular leader with one who was less prominent, and thus not blamed for Yemen's many problems. Hadi, who had been vice president for more than 15 years, was hardly a new broom, and cooperation on key issues like counterterrorism seems to have improved during his first months as president.

But in Syria, the choice between the opposition and the regime is far starker. Assad heads a kleptocratic government dominated by the Alawite minority that has co-opted key power centers in Syria and ruled the rest of the country through fear. His father killed tens of thousands of Syrians to stay in power, and as the bloodshed rises, Bashar seems willing to do the same -- or even worse. Saleh's fall was hardly peaceful, with perhaps several thousand dying in the violence. But it was far less bloody than Syria and did not involve horrors like the deliberate murder of children. Syria is also Iran's closest ally, and the two regimes have moved closer in the past year. The Syrian opposition, though divided, is anti-Iranian and hostile to Hezbollah, Assad's ally. We don't know what kind of government the Syrian opposition would produce, or even if it can get its act together enough to produce a government should Assad fall, but it is unlikely to be as bad as the current regime in terms of human rights abuses and hostility to the United States. Still, handing over power to a Syrian apparatchik, which would be part of a Yemen-like solution, risks generating a clone of Assad's government with a different name.

Such moral and strategic compromises might, perhaps, be justifiable if the only alternative is an increasingly bloody civil war. But a negotiated middle ground approach is likely to fail and do little to end the violence. Assad believes time (and might) is on his side. Although the opposition remains unbowed, Assad is trying to terrorize the Syrian people into submission through repeated demonstrations of brutal force. As he is doing now, he would make promises during negotiations he never intends to keep, using the breathing space he gains to continue his crackdown. Because the Syrian elite fears losing its privileged position and suffering payback for its decades of brutality, it is unlikely to support Assad's removal, particularly if they see the opposition as weak, divided, and thus unable to win in the long-term.

Moreover, the Syrian opposition would categorically reject a mere change in strongmen, reasoning, correctly, that their thousands of dead countrymen did not give their lives simply to change the name of the country's dictator. And the lack of opposition unity, which has proven so fatal to its success, makes it impossible to force an unpopular deal upon them. Complicating all this, Iran has weighed in on the side of Assad and would try to undermine any deal that risked its alliance with Damascus. Meanwhile, Russia's actions so far suggest its rhetorical openness to a Yemen-type option is false and that it intends to give Assad time to quell the rebellion by butchering his own people.

Led by U.S. allies in Europe, the Obama administration played an important role in ousting Qaddafi. But it is far more passive in Syria -- even though the country is of far greater strategic importance, the potential for the conflict to spillover into neighboring states is higher, and the bloodletting is escalating. For now, direct military intervention ( à la Libya) is not in the cards for political and diplomatic reasons, so the United States should instead more aggressively support the Syrian opposition in conjunction with its allies. The opposition, in the end, is the key to both ousting Assad and ensuring that any replacement regime is better for Syria and for U.S. interests. Most important is coordinating the flow of arms and money, working with key allies like Turkey and the Gulf states to encourage opposition unity and promote more pro-Western figures. Washington must also push its NATO allies to back Turkey and otherwise give Ankara support for hosting the Syrian opposition. If the Syrian opposition becomes stronger, it becomes a more potent threat to the regime.

Bolstering the opposition is part of a long-term strategy, and it does little for the besieged communities in Syria today. But laying the groundwork for a longer-term approach is better than chasing a compromise solution that is likely to fail and, even if successful, would not advance U.S. interests.