Burma & the War On Terror

The War on Terror has had indirect effects on Myanmar. Although the nation has not directly sent troops or supplies, it has felt the effects through shifts in ideology.

Although anti-Muslim feelings have been present in Burma for hundreds of year, the September 11th attacks intensified these feelings. According to the Irrawaddy, Anti-Muslim demonstrations increased in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks. In October 2001, there were three anti-Muslim demonstrations that turned violent. A Muslim man in Yangon commented,”In Burmese people’s eyes, every Muslim is assumed to be a terrorist and evil because their original anti-Muslim sentiment has been fueled by these attacks.”

However, the Americas military campaign in Afghanistan have also intensified shared feelings of retribution amongst Muslims. The Muslim man contented, “All Muslims around the world are brothers and exist in the same body of Islam. So if anywhere in the world a Muslim is injured, it will hurt us the same as him and we are responsible for protecting him.”

According to the Irrawaddy report, following the terrorist attacks the Burmese government increased restrictions on Muslims. It also sealed off the road to the American Embassy and security police are stationed near the residences of diplomats. Due to these heightened security measures, some Burmese people were under the belief that Burma was facing threats from Muslim extremists. Despite the presence of Muslim separatist groups in Burma, they are considered to be moderate compared to other separatist groups and as of 2001 there had never been a suicide attack in the history of Burma.

US Embassy in Yangon, Burma

US Embassy in Yangon, Burma

Non-Traditional Web-based Media

In February 2014, Buzzfeed published an article describing the expulsion of Doctors Without Borders from the Myanmar. http://www.buzzfeed.com/miriamberger/myanmar-kicks-out-doctors-without-borders-amid-rising-anti-m

Earlier in the semester I wrote about the restricted access to the Rakhine state, where there is a large Muslim population, as well as Buddhist radicalism towards Muslims. This article further describes the persecution that Muslims face. It begins with brief background information about the situation. It describes how Doctors Without Borders is the largest health care provider in the Rakhine State, and treats tens of thousands of Muslims displaced by sectarian and ethnic violence. The apparent reason behind the expulsion of Doctors Without Borders is because it showed bias toward the Rohingya minority, and prioritized care of Rohingyas over Buddhists. The article continues into a listicle format that is not actually numbered, but it consists of sequential concrete facts about the conflict.

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Compared to traditional media coverage there are more images. The numerous pictures make the article appear to be quite lengthy but there is actually not a great deal of writing. It is mostly the 10 large pictures that give it this appearance. The article is also less story like, it consists of short concise facts that give the reader a brief but comprehensible idea of the situation. Within the article there are hyperlinks that lead to traditional news sources such as BBC and NPR. The traditional news sources, such as the BBC, contains facts about government policies that are not included in the Buzzfeed article. However, the Buzzfeed article also contains information that was not part of the BBC article and the Buzzfeed article seems a bit more emotional.

Impartiality is less present within this article then there may be in a traditional news source. It is fairly obvious that the article is criticizing the Myanmar government for its decision. There also seems to be subtle support for the Rohingya Muslims present within the article. Examples of facts in the article are: “Myanmar insists that the country’s 1.3 million Rohingya live in the country illegally, despite the fact that many have been living there for generations” & “The government has denied almost all Rohingya citizenship and basic freedoms, including to movement, healthcare, and religion. Thousands have tried to flee to nearby Thailand and Indonesia, mainly by boat, to escape the cycle of revenge and violence.”

rohingya boat

Social Media

Social Media is just beginning to develop in Myanmar. Previously, the telecom sector was dominated by a state-owned monopoly. According to Forbes, at the beginning of 2012 mobile phone penetration in Myanmar was just below 4%. According to the World Bank, in 2013 only 1.2% of the population used the internet.

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Despite these statistics, social media is still making strides. Facebook has become the most popular social media site by far. John Handley, the chief executive officer of Myanmar’s first and largest advertising company, Sail, says, “Facebook has essentially become synonymous with the internet in Myanmar, where internet users are roughly equal to those who have Facebook accounts.” During the time of strict government censorship over the media, especially print media, Facebook was used by journalists to bypass the strict controls according to TheNextWeb. An example of this was during the 2012 elections, journalists used Facebook to report the results in a more timely manner. Instead of securing permission from the government to print the results a day after, journalists opted to publish content on their own terms using social media. The executive editor of 7Day News, Nyein Nyein Naing, said “Our paper will (published) after the election, so we will post on Facebook and our Twitter account, so we will update all the news every hour after the polling stations open.”

There have also been recent reports from DVB, a non-profit media organization based in Thailand, that the Burmese government has reached out to Facebook in order to monitor content and hate speech that could “instigate racial and religious violence in the country.” However, it is unclear what agreements, if any, have been made. Zaw Htay, the director the President’s Office in Myanmar, said government officials met with Facebook representatives and, “They recommended enacting a cyber law to moderate the use of social media, but that may take some time.” Facebook does not support this claim. It stated that no proposed cyber law was suggested to Myanmar and that Facebook does not monitor or moderate content. If content is reported to violate Facebooks terms, the company will review it and take it down.

While Facebook seems to be dominating the Myanmar social media scene, there is a new social network that is growing in Myanmar called Squar. Forbes reports it is a local media site in the Burmese language, aimed specifically at the Burmese youth. The CEO, Rita Nguyen, strongly believes that Western social networks and products are not created for the Burmese market or culture. This new social network was created specifically with the Burmese people in mind. She says, “Its teaching people how they can use this technology they’ve never used before… How do we bring the internet to a country that has been largely excluded from the international society for over 60 years?”

Rita Nguyen, the CEO of Squar

Rita Nguyen, the CEO of Squar

Citizen Journalism

During the pro democracy Saffron Revolution in 2007, citizen journalism became increasingly important in Burma. As the junta cracked down on the protests and the media, it was up to citizen journalists to break the news to the world. Ellana Lee, the managing editor of CNN Asia Pacific states, “Even in countries like Myanmar, the spread of the Internet and mobile phones has meant that footage will always continue to get through and the story will be told, one way or another.”

Many of the blogs and news websites that reported on the crack down were located outside of Myanmar due to Myanmar’s severe censorship over the internet. It was up to citizen journalists to take photos or videos of the protests and then smuggle those out of the country to these remote locations.

An example of this practice was reported by the WSJ. It discussed Mizzima News, a publication run by exiles in New Delhi. The editor in chief, Soe Myint,  received reports, images, and videos from students, activists, and ordinary citizens depicting the violent events taking place within the country. These reports provided by citizen journalists offer a stark contrast to the sanitized version of the events presented by the state-run media. CNN also used this practice through its i-Report citizen journalism system; it aired clips from tourists and residents. CNN’s system was actually mentioned in the documentary Burma VJ. A film about independent dissident video journalists who risked torture and life imprisonment to expose the repressive Junta regime and document the 2007 Saffron Revolution. A trailer is below:

I found it interesting that while trying to find the specific blogs by citizen journalists I noticed that a lot of them have been deactivated or I was immediately redirected to a different webpage that was not the blog. For example Ko Htike is noted as being a very active citizen journalist during the revolution. However when I tried to go to his at http://www.ko-htike.blogspot.com I came to a page that was clearly Burmese writing for a few seconds, but then I was automatically redirected.

Response to Restrepo

Restrepo successfully conveys the many emotions that a soldier experiences while deployed. The boredom while sitting around, the camaraderie, the devastation when a friend dies, the frustration of dealing with locals, the anxiety while out on patrol, the adrenaline while under fire, and the excitement of a successful mission. In this regard, one is given the full view of what takes place. However in regard to the Afghani locals, the viewers experience is not balanced and impartial. I thought the film portrayed them as stubborn, unfriendly, and irrational. This is exemplified during the exchange over the dead cow. The cow dies as a result of an American presence, if they were not stationed there the cow would not have died, yet the Americans refused to pay the Afghani the worth of the cow. In fact, they act as if it is ridiculous that the Afghani is even asking for monetary compensation.

I think the Vanity Fair article is most effective in conveying the reality of the conflict. It provides background information that was missing from the film because it is so emotionally charged. The article includes a segment describing the Korengal locals. It states,”They practice the extremist Wahhabi version of Islam and speak a language that even people in the next valley over cannot understand.” Knowing these facts made it easier to understand the actions of the locals in the film and why the Americans may have acted aggressively towards them.

The film was effective in depicting other peaceful ways that Americans interacted with Aghanis; it was not all fighting. They would hold shura with the elders to discuss problems, and they would talk to the locals about the economic opportunities within the valley. I think these elements are missing from daily media, almost everything I read about is violent in nature.

Photo Credit: Apple trailers

Photo Credit: Apple trailers

Reporting Death

In terms of reporting death I like the way that Dexter Filkins describes the raw and honest circumstances of war. It allows the reader to understand the context of the situation and see a more humanized side of the conflict. It does not feel as if he is telling these stories for business or public interest but because he wants to share his experiences. While reading the book I was captured by the graphic scenes he describes and I found myself doing further research on some of the topics he mentioned. For instance the public executions in the Kabul Sports Stadium, I looked up photos of the stadium to get a better idea of the scale of the event. I also researched Uzbekistan to gain better understanding of the significance of the people there. It didn’t feel like he was exploiting anyone with the stories he was telling; it felt like he was offering an honest perspective on what took place.

However, I do not feel as open or positive to images of death that are shown in the media. The family has such little control of the situation already, death is permanent, that it does not seem fair for them to lose control of the way their loved one is shown in the media. I think images of coffins are okay, they are less personal but still send a strong message.

I find that images of people who have died from natural disasters or illness like cyclones and ebola are easier to comprehend because they are not a result of human actions. I thought this NYT segment was informative but still jarring.

Control Over Coverage

Journalists are not embedded in Myanmar because the conflict taking place is a civil war and the United States is not directly involved. However, because the state exerted strict control over the media journalists would try to gain access by other means. Many would enter the country with a tourist visa and hope that the junta would not catch them as journalists. According to WSJ, journalists would not use their byline in reports about Myanmar and would switch hotels and cars in order to avoid detection.

A journalist who experienced this first hand was CNN’s Dan Rivers. The Guardian explains the situation he was in while in Burma to report on Cyclone Nargis. Although there was a humanitarian crisis taking place the government was still expending a great amount of resources and money to control the media. After Rivers posted an article describing the blocking of aid and the extent of the crisis, the junta regime initiated a search for him in order to stop him from reporting. He explains the measures he had to take to ensure that he would not be caught. These included hiding in a restaurant while colleagues spoke to government workers, hiding in the trunk of a car, and intense questioning by police after their ditched car was found in a jungle. Eventually, Rivers decided to leave Burma because he did not want to endanger his fellow workers, especially the locals because they faced possible imprisonment and abuse if their involvement was discovered. Although, Rivers left Burma on his own accord this time around he was expelled from the country in March 2010.

He describes his experience in the video below:

He explicitly talks about the tight control the media exerts saying, “On the few occasions we are allowed in we are not given much time, on this trip our visa was only four days.” There are numerous other accounts of journalists who have been deported from Burma by the junta regime. The BBC‘s Andrew Harding arrived in Yangon hours after the cyclone hit and was deported from the country before he had the chance to leave the airport. The CPJ reported that a freelance South Korean journalist was deported and her discs containing photos of the Cyclone Nargis devastation were confiscated. Andrew Marshall of TIME and Ben Gurr of The Times of London were also deported. The CPJ released a statement saying it is, “concerned that the government’s ongoing deportation of foreign journalists and harassment of local journalists is an attempt to cover up the true extent of the cyclone’s devastation and the government’s inadequate response.”

Natural Disaster: Cyclone Nargis

People work to remove debris from the Big Buddha. Photo Credit: The Guardian

People work to remove debris from the Big Buddha. Photo Credit: The Guardian

Cyclone Nargis was the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of Myanmar. Although the true death toll may never be known, it is estimated that nearly 140,000 people died according to Reuters. Cyclone Nargis presents an interesting case because it occurred before Myanmar transitioned from a tightly controlled military government to a civilian democracy. As a result, the coverage is very inaccurate and most of it is extremely critical of the Burmese government.

The cyclone made landfall on May 2, 2008. The first article released by the Guardian was on May 4th stating “Over 300 Dead in Burmese Cyclone.” The first article published by the New York Times was on May 5th with the title “Cyclone Kills More Than 350 in Myanmar.” Both of these reports are massive understatements for the actual death and destruction that took place. The inaccurate information and time delay represents how closed the nation of Myanmar was at the time.

Nearly all the articles I read paint a picture of a country reeling from this natural disaster with their government unwilling to open its door to international aid groups. There are few facts and figures about the actual amount of destruction that took place in the country, the death toll estimate rises each day but most media coverage is about how uncooperative the junta is.

Boys look onto wrecked fishing boats after Cyclone Nargis. Photo Credit: NYT

Boys look onto wrecked fishing boats after Cyclone Nargis. Photo Credit: NYT

On May 9th, 2008 the Guardian published an article stating that the United States and France have called for international aid to be delivered to Myanmar without the permission of the Junta if the military government continues to block foreign aid workers. Even China, Burma’s closest ally, took the unprecedented move of urging Burma to accept foreign aid. The article stresses that during the time of such an enormous humanitarian crisis, now is not the time to be political.

Many homes in Myanmar are made of bamboo and could not withstand the high speed winds of Cyclone Nargis. Photo Credit: The Guardian

Many homes in Myanmar are made of bamboo and could not withstand the high speed winds of Cyclone Nargis. Photo Credit: The Guardian

The single story of Cyclone Nargis is how uncooperative the Junta was in warning its people of the coming storm and helping them in the aftermath. A former minister for integration and democracy in Sweden, Jens Orback, was in Yangon at the time. He was quoted by the NYT saying, “What struck us also was in the first daylight, nobody form the police, military or firemen was out working with the devastation but people privately were there with knives and machetes and hand saws.”

Unusual Story: Buddhist Radicalism

A Buddhist monk protest Islam. Credit: Foreign Policy

A Buddhist monk protests Islam. Credit: Foreign Policy

The rise of radical Buddhism is incongruous with the gentle, meditating, self effacing stereotypes that Westerners typically associate with Buddhism. In April 2013, NPR reported that Buddhist monks were involved in violence that claimed the lives of at least 40 people. The violence is a result of religious tension between Buddhists and Muslims.

The leader of the extreme Buddhist monks is Ashin Wirathu, sometimes called the “Burmese bin Laden” or “The Face of Buddhist Terror” according to TIME. He denies being directly involved in the violence directed at Muslims, but at the very least his extreme sermons have inspired riots and incited hatred.

July 2013 Cover of TIME Magazine

July 2013 Cover of TIME Magazine

He believes that Muslims have a “master plan” to take over the Burmese state. In order to stop this, Wirathu advocates a movement called 969. Buddhists must shop, sell property to, and marry other Buddhists. Brightly colored stickers have been distributed to Buddhist shops so they can distinguish themselves. It is eerily reminiscent to the days of the Holocaust.

As a result of this extremism, Myanmar monks are isolating themselves from other monks. It is a stark contrast to the 2007 Saffron Revolution during which thousands of Buddhist monks led a peaceful protest for democracy. It is unsettling to many monks from different nations as well because this divide is contradictory to the idea of Buddhism. Abbot Arriya Wuttha Bewuntha said, “This is not the way the Buddha taught. What the Buddha taught is that hatred is not good, because Buddha sees everyone as an equal being. The Buddha doesn’t see people through religion.”

Wirathu claims he is a Buddhist nationalist, but his words and actions suggest there is more to his beliefs.





How Does Access Affect Reporting?

Muslims look out of an internally displaced peoples camp. Photo Credit: Burma Times

Muslims look out of an internally displaced peoples camp. Photo Credit: Burma Times

The most striking example of restricted access to journalists is the Rakhine State, located in the southwest of Myanmar. There is mounting evidence that at least 48 Muslims were killed here in January by a Buddhist mob. However, the Burmese government has repeatedly denied this claim. Statements appear frequently in the state-run media and on government websites saying that violence did not take place. Foreign journalists are denied access in the region and aid workers are given increasingly limited access making it hard to confirm the level of violence that took place and the actual number of people who died.

About 80% of Burma’s 1 million Muslim Rohingya population resides in the Rakhine state. Not only is this region geographically isolated by a mountain range but it is also physically isolated from the rest of the world due to strict government controls on who is granted access to the area. Getting to North Rakhine requires crossing through numerous check points and providing official documents to prove the government has granted permission. Only a handful of foreign journalists have done it.

The massacre of these Muslims has increased international concern for the Rohingya minority. According to the UN, they are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. They are deprived of basic liberties such as the ability to travel freely and freedom of religion. In February, Doctors Without Borders was expelled from the country leaving the Rohingya with nowhere to go for medical service. Admission to a Burmese hospital requires a lengthy approval process and most Muslims are frightened that the care they receive will not actually help their case. There are no health records to access because the Burmese government either fails to keep them or if they do exist will not share them. With no journalists or aid workers in the region it is difficult to assess how many Muslims have been killed and the human rights abuses that are taking place.

A closed Doctors Without Borders clinic. Photo Credit: Reuters

A closed Doctors Without Borders clinic. Photo Credit: Reuters

US Ambassador Derek Mitchell requested that an international representative be a part of the investigating team to confirm what took place when the mob attacked the village. This request was denied by Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwan, who stated it was an “internal affair.”

The reporting of events that take place in the Rakhine region are based on reports from aid workers, sometimes local journalists, and the few foreign journalists who gain access. As a result, reports are inaccurate and largely based on the response of the international community because so little can be deduced from Myanmar itself.