As Myanmar's Rakhine crisis deepens, so does state bid for media control

During Aung San Suu Kyi's years of house arrest, her fight for democracy was sustained by independent media. Now in power, her administration is accused of clamping down on the press in favor of official outlets.

Smoke rises from a burned house in Gawdu Zara village, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar on Sept. 7, 2017. Journalists saw new fires burning Thursday in the Myanmar village that had been abandoned by Rohingya Muslims, and where pages from the Quran were seen ripped and left on the ground.

In just two weeks, clashes between insurgents and Myanmar’s military have driven almost 400,000 Rohingya refugees into neighboring Bangladesh – as many refugees as crossed the Mediterranean in all of 2016.

The government says it is waging a legitimate campaign against Rohingya “terrorists;” the Rohingya say they are being forcibly expelled – a view the United Nations’ human rights chief endorsed on Monday, saying the situation “seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The Rohingya, a Muslim minority of about 1 million, have lived in northern Rakhine state for generations, yet are largely deprived of citizenship, making them the world’s largest stateless population

The escalation of the long-simmering crisis has brought enormous international pressure upon Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to condemn alleged military excesses – especially as the UN Security Council convenes Wednesday to discuss the situation. 

Instead, the former dissident has turned to state media to marshal support for the military, while her government has accused international aid groups of supporting the militants, and suggested that reporters are producing “supportive writings.” During her combined 15 years of house arrest under the military governments, which ruled for half a century, Ms. Suu Kyi’s fight for democracy was sustained by coverage in exiled Myanmar media. But now in power, her administration is accused of stifling the free press while endorsing the state mouthpieces inherited from her erstwhile military captors.

Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
Rohingya refugees walk through a paddy field after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on Sept. 8.

Her defenders argue she is hamstrung. Despite her elected administration’s overwhelming democratic mandate, it’s constitutionally obliged to share power with the autonomous military. 

But the administration’s use of propaganda goes beyond a reluctance to criticize their co-rulers, says Mark Farmaner, director of the human rights group Burma Campaign UK.

“By standing shoulder to shoulder with the military, [Suu Kyi] has bought into the narrative they use to justify their behavior, that the nation is under serious threat from foreign terrorists. Now her government is propagating that narrative, which is increasing tensions and the likelihood of further violence,” he says.

'Misinformation' claims

Last week, in her first statement since the crisis flared last month, Suu Kyi slammed a “huge iceberg of misinformation” for promoting sympathy for “terrorists.” The accuracy of some images circulating on both sides of the issue has been called into question, with some photos stemming from other conflicts.

Her statement made no mention of Rohingya refugees, however. Suu Kyi has explicitly endorsed state media, where official coverage of the conflict is dominated by graphic photos of the alleged crimes of “extremist terrorists,” as the government refers to the insurgents – and insists that independent media do as well.

“The people have a lot of trust for this government, so that [trust] will, of course, extend to the press of the government as well,” says Htaike Htaike Aung, executive director of Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO), a digital rights advocacy group.

Two days after renewed clashes in Rakhine, posts on Suu Kyi’s office’s Facebook page accused international nongovernmental groups of helping “terrorists,” while other posts implied some media had published writing deemed “supportive” of the “terrorists.”

The messaging appears to have made an impact. BBC’s Burmese language service, which Suu Kyi listened to on her radio during her years of house arrest, cut ties with a state broadcaster after a dispute over its coverage of the Rohingya crisis and resistance to using the state-sanctioned terminology.

Several journalists have also reported experiencing unprecedented hostility and threats to their safety while on assignment in Rakhine, including one who described narrowly escaping a vigilante crowd threatening to kill him. Government and military officials have also called attention to and criticized individual reporters.

Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), “unfortunately sees the media as a subservient arm of the state, not as the fourth estate and independent voices it should be,” says David Mathieson, an independent, Myanmar-based analyst, warning that the media restrictions “will seriously trip up the democratic transition.”

“Rakhine State is the most bitter battlefield” between the government and the media, he adds.

Abuses against Rohingya

The renewed crisis has emerged as a key crucible by which Myanmar’s fledgling democracy is internationally judged, even as the crackdown commands widespread domestic support. Leaders from fellow Peace Prize laureates Malala Yousafzai and Desmond Tutu to US senators have pressured Suu Kyi to speak out about the plight of the Rohingya. Suu Kyi is “the one person in the country with the popularity and moral authority” to calm the situation, Mr. Farmaner says, although he says she is instead “whipping it up.”

But concerns about the situation in Rakhine predate the latest escalation – as do the government’s attempts to manage reporting about it.

Bernat Armangue/AP
Newly-arrived Rohingya stretch out their hands to receive puffed rice food rations donated by local volunteers in Kutupalong, Bangladesh, on Sept. 9. With Rohingya refugees still flooding across the border from Myanmar, those packed into camps and makeshift settlements in Bangladesh are becoming desperate for scant basic resources.

A UN report said security forces had “very likely” committed crimes against humanity during the October to February crackdown, including gang rapes, village burnings, and the killing of children, women, and the elderly – allegations that Suu Kyi’s office has dismissed as “fabricated news” and “fake rapes.” One official, asked by a BBC interviewer last year about the allegations, laughed that the women were “too dirty” to rape.

The administration has also denied visas to a UN team tasked with investigating alleged military atrocities, claiming the probe would create “greater hostility.” It has largely barred independent media and international observers from the area, imposing an information void across the low-lying hills and swampland of northern Rakhine.

Critics allege the government has sought to fill that vacuum with its own accounts. Outlets controlled by the civilian-led government have cast the military as protectors against insurgent atrocities, such as using “children as human shield[s],” while omitting claims of military abuses against Rohingya. Suu Kyi’s spokesperson shared photos supposedly capturing Rohingya setting their own homes alight – but the authenticity of those photos have been questioned, while last Thursday, journalists reported Buddhist youths admitted to starting fires.

Power-sharing arrangement

Some observers caution that much of the state’s response has emerged from the civilian government’s information office, rather than statements from Suu Kyi herself, although she has not denounced it.

“What is not certain is how much control Aung San Suu Kyi has over this messaging,” Mr. Mathieson says. “But she has to take ultimate responsibility for the unproductive tone.”

But the NLD has demonstrated a longstanding allergy toward negative press, media groups say. “Most journalists feel they have less freedom under the NLD,” says Thiha Saw of the Myanmar Press Council. Eighteen journalists have been arrested under an online defamation law, according to the Research Team for Telecommunications Law, a local advocacy group. NLD politicians have said the law is necessary to curb hate speech, but none of the nearly 200 cases brought under the provision since the administration came to power have involved hate speech, according to MIDO. 

“There were high expectations for the new civilian-led government,” says Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of the PEN American Center’s Free Expression At Risk Program. “As the gaps between expectation and reality become more apparent, I believe that the government has increasingly tried to clamp down on criticism and debate over policy, trying to stifle embarrassing or inconvenient reporting.”

Some observers believe that the civilian government has no choice but to toe the military line. The constitution invests the military with significant powers, including control over three key ministries, law enforcement, and local administration, as well as the ability to appoint 25 percent of seats in Parliament and to veto constitutional changes. Some argue that the NLD fears a derailing of democratization if it openly confronts the military.

“[The NLD-led government] is trying to avoid further conflict by regrouping with the military,” says Jean Jonathan Borgais, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Sydney who studies conflict in Southeast Asia, warning that “Myanmar is in a critical juncture.”

Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative to the Committee to Protect Journalists, says there is clearly a view within the government that an “unfettered” press would put the administration’s tenuous position at risk.

“Suu Kyi's fear from the start has been that a muckraking media would expose the military's various past and present crimes and that such exposes would cause the military to rethink its decision to yield partial power to an elected government,” he says.

“But if she doesn't push back soon then Myanmar will remain mired in a military-controlled state masquerading as a democracy for international consumption.”

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