from Asia Unbound

Myanmar’s Ethnic Strife and Media Coverage

June 29, 2012

Rohingya Muslims carry their belongings as they move after recent violence in Sittwe June 16, 2012.
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Over at Bangkok Pundit, BP has a fine summary of complaints by some Burmese bloggers and writers that the foreign media has covered the ethnic strife in western Myanmar poorly and, in some cases, allegedly in a biased manner. Some Burmese bloggers cited there argue that the foreign media, such as the New York Times, overhypes divisions between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar and sensationalizes Burmese citizens’ dislike for Muslims, and argue that in some cases the media seems to be taking the side of the Muslim Rohingya against Buddhists living in western Myanmar.

Some of these critiques echo tired complaints about foreign reporting heard in recent years in China and Thailand, where some pro-Democrat royalists inveighed against CNN and other foreign media, largely because the foreign media actually took the time to travel outside Bangkok and get a broad, richer view of the country’s citizens. Here, again, are complaints that foreign media cannot understand Myanmar, or that the foreign media are sensationalistic. Again, I don’t think these critiques hold true. The New York Times’ reporting on the strife in Myanmar was been, in my opinion, fair and thorough and, even to many Southeast Asia experts, extremely revealing. I had seen little coverage of western Myanmar in the past, and knew far less about Rakhine State than anywhere else in Myanmar.

What’s more, foreign media coverage of the strife in western Myanmar has, I think, been more revealing about some of the deep divisions in Burmese society than the domestic coverage. Of course, the state media in Myanmar has downplayed the riots, praised the security forces’ response, and generally minimized severe cleavages in Burmese society or obliquely blamed the violence on the Rohingya Muslims. But even Burmese non-state media and bloggers have often presented a relatively one-sided view, affixing blame (sometimes in vicious ways) to Muslims, offering little background to the disputes in Rakhine State, and minimizing the Rakhine disputes compared to other ethnic conflicts. And unfortunately, as BP discusses, even many pro-democracy, longtime opposition Burmese activists have been offering up charged, and sometimes stereotypical views of the Rohingya Muslims —views that might come as a surprise to many outsiders who know only the Burmese opposition’s progressive views on many other issues.