Burma riots: What the media isn't telling you

Several key elements of the spiraling sectarian violence in western Myanmar are not getting picked up on by media. There is of course an issue with verification, particularly in a situation in which emotions can fuel propaganda, where communication is very difficult and where the conflict is so inflammatory. But nevertheless it’s worth bringing them to the table.

At least 20 people have been killed in Rakhine State, with President Thein Sein declaring a state of emergency and sending troops to the state, in which hundreds of homes have been destroyed. Officials in Bangladesh say their border guards have turned away hundreds of Rohingya Muslims fleeing the fighting.

One thing people seem loath to report is the blatantly racist element to the unrest, for which Buddhist Burmese and Arakanese must take the bulk of responsibility (perhaps however it is because they have greater access to media in which to vent opinions).

The Rohingya have been mistreated for decades in Myanmar, with Rohingya children born out of wedlock denied travel permits, the privilege of attending school or even the ability to obtain marriage certificates. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has reviewed critically the blacklisting of Rohingya babies but discrimination continues.

This discrimination is even apparent among Burma’s pro-democracy leaders, the so-called “forces for change” in the country. Prominent activist Ko Ko Gyi said that the presence of the Rohingya, an ethnic minority that has borne the brunt of the rioting, is “infringing on Burma’s sovereignty.” A friend said Tuesday that he had received an email from a former political prisoner stating that, “if western nations really believed in human rights, they would take the Rohingya from us.”

The role of security forces in the violence has also been underreported, which contributes to statements like this one yesterday from an European Union spokesperson: “We believe that the security forces are handling this difficult inter-communal violence in an appropriate way.” That does not marry with reports from locals on the ground.

At least four people have told me that police are acting alongside Arakanese in torching homes of Muslims, while several reports have emerged of police opening fire on crowds of Muslims, who are forbidden from entering Burma’s police force or army, which does carry significance when violence is of this nature. An NGO worker said last night that her family friend, a former politician from Sittwe, has been killed after being arrested over the weekend, while AFP is reporting that a Rohingya shot by Burmese police has died in Bangladesh.

The United Nations is unlikely to act unless there is clear complicity in the violence by state agents. The trouble is however that with few journalists or observers on the ground, those responsible for the deaths (which could well be in the hundreds by now) are hard to pinpoint. The UN has withdrawn staff from the region, but Human Rights Watch has urged the government to allow observers in.

There also seems to be something of a public relations campaign to cast Muslims as those behind the killings. Certainly, Muslim groups are not innocent bystanders, but have also been involved in arson attacks across the state. One such allegation, which is unproven is the shaving of the heads of dead victims, often Muslims, and dressing them in monks’ robes – “and they (media) will take photos of this fake monk corpse to show to the world that these dead bodies were murdered by Muslim [sic]”, one source wrote.

In keeping with past instances of anti-Muslim fever in Burma, the internet has been awash with vitriol. A piece I published on Al Jazeera only yesterday has already attracted 150 comments – they are a pretty good window into how the debate runs. What is conspicuously absent in all this is any rational debate – indeed most comments, even from the veterans of unrest in Burma, do not tackle the unfolding crisis, but instead exploit it as a means to vent their own bigotry.

(Francis Wade blogs at Inside Burma for Asian Correspondent, where a slightly different version of this appeared.)