Myanmar’s estrangement from the West is deepening, so too its determination to tell the story — even when the facts don’t add up.
Last year, as Rohingya Muslim men, women and children ran from their burning villages in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, an alarmed world turned to the internet for news. Some looked at The Irrawaddy, a publication named after the country’s signature river, which has been a pillar of journalistic probity since student activist Aung Zaw founded it in 1993. The former print operation, which now publishes online in English and Burmese, has covered all of Myanmar’s big moments, from the Saffron Revolution in 2007 to Cyclone Nargis in 2008 to the triumph of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in 2015.
As the military “clearance operations” targeting Rohingya unfolded, impartial information was at a premium. Authorities closed northern Rakhine State, the centre of the violence, to journalists, who resorted to tracking fires from across the border in Bangladesh. The Rohingya arriving there told stories of shootings, machete attacks and rapes by security forces and civilians that were to precipitate one of the fastest mass movements of people in modern times.
But while the western press covered the violence widely, regular readers of The Irrawaddy’s English-language website noted some puzzling changes. The publication, which had previously been criticised by nationalists for its robust reporting on the persecuted minority, had started to label them as “self-identifying Rohingya”.
“Rohingya” is a loaded word in Myanmar; it’s a term rejected by ethnic Bamars who dominate government and public life and regard the minority as illegal “Bengali” immigrants. As the refugees continued to pour into Bangladesh — their number would reach nearly 700,000 by early 2018 — international outrage spread, and with it calls to censure Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s civilian leader. The Irrawaddy defended her. “Many groups and institutions in the West are humiliating Aung San Suu Kyi as well as the country,” it stated in one of many defiant editorials. Rather than training its attention on what US and UN officials called ethnic cleansing, the publication focused on what it claimed was biased foreign coverage of the exodus, and printed cartoons that tapped into a surge in nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment.
Human rights advocates expressed alarm. “The Irrawaddy have switched over and aligned themselves with the prevailing narrative; they used to be independent and strongly in favour of democracy,” Khin Zaw Win, one of the few political commentators in Myanmar to have bluntly criticised Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, tells me. There’s a struggle going on in Myanmar’s media, he explains; The Irrawaddy’s stance on the Rohingya crisis reflects popular public opinion.
This is not a story solely about the media, except to the extent that many stories these days are about media credibility, the manipulation of social media and so-called fake news, whether in Brexit Britain or Trump’s America. Nor is it solely about The Irrawaddy, except to the extent that it stands for an ideal of journalism and the deep sacrifices that Myanmar’s people — including some of its own journalists — paid for their freedom.
Instead it is about a moment when many of the democratic forces that successfully challenged military rule in Myanmar are closing ranks around a nationalist and apologist script that increasingly puts them at odds with the West. An unsettling moment in the country’s history is playing out in the press and social media, where new internet freedoms have enabled both incisive journalism and the spread of falsehoods and hate speech. Some journalists have been arrested or received death threats. Others are leaving. Myanmar’s estrangement from the West is deepening, as is its determination to tell its own story on its own terms — even when the facts don’t add up.
Since last year, the simple narrative of freedom triumphing over tyranny in Myanmar has proved hard to sustain. Aung San Suu Kyi, a unifying force while under house arrest for almost 15 years, is foundering in power. The 2008 constitution that paved her way to office left the generals in control of three government ministries and a quarter of parliamentary seats, enough to block further reform. Even sympathetic observers describe her micro-managing style as undermining the government’s ability to make decisions.
The military’s rampage against the Rohingya began without Aung San Suu Kyi’s apparent consent or prior knowledge. However, her subsequent response to the international outrage has been defensive and, to most foreign observers, inadequate. “She is proving to be the wrong person at the wrong time for Myanmar,” says Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. “We were hoping she would provide the charismatic leadership needed to bridge divides — to say to ethnic minorities, ‘We can work with you’; to solve the Rakhine situation; to move the military out of politics and back to the barracks — and in all these things she’s failing.”
As Myanmar’s transition towards democracy was beginning in 2012, the opening up of the internet allowed old grievances to reignite and spread fast. The rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by Rohingya men that year caused rioting that killed about 200 people. Zaw Htay, then spokesman for President Thein Sein and now for the Aung San Suu Kyi administration, was accused of fanning the flames by posting incendiary pictures on Facebook, which most people in the country now access as a primary news source on their mobile phones.
Unlike some other Asian countries, Myanmar does not censor the internet. Citizens searching for news increasingly turn to the unregulated online shallows, where calls for violence spread with apparent impunity. Facebook takes down content flagged as abusive or racist, but users commonly cut and paste these posts before they are removed, so incitement continues to spread. According to Phandeeyar, a local tech innovation lab, Myanmar now has more active SIM cards than people, and 90 per cent of the population lives within range of mobile broadband.
Communal violence flared again in Rakhine State last August, when militants who call themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police posts and an army base, killing 12 and prompting the Myanmar military’s ferocious crackdown. In December, Médecins Sans Frontières estimated at least 6700 Rohingya had died from violence in the month following the ARSA attacks. While journalists are still barred from northern Rakhine, the Associated Press recently pieced together evidence of at least five mass graves there; Aung San Suu Kyi’s office dispatched a ground team to the scene and declared the report was “not true”. A spokeswoman for the AP said the agency stood behind its reporting.
“Can we work here, or are we supporting apartheid?” one foreign diplomat in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, asked me in an unusually frank moment recently. The UK, US and EU have taken some steps to censure and isolate the military but are loath to cut off Myanmar’s government or reimpose economic sanctions, for fear of hurting ordinary people or derailing what they see as a delicate democratic experiment.
But the ground is shifting in Myanmar as pressure, harassment and even the full weight of the law are brought to bear on journalists. One evening last December, two young reporters for Reuters’ Yangon bureau, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were invited to a restaurant by police officers who handed them documents. The reporters were arrested outside and charged under the Official Secrets Act for having “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media”. They are currently in Insein prison, where thousands of dissidents served time in the days of military rule.
In February, Reuters published the exposé on which the pair had been working: a meticulously sourced report about the slaughter of 10 Rohingya men, who were picked at random by soldiers from a group of displaced people in the village of Inn Din. As the case drags on, the reporters’ imprisonment has become a defining moment for how the new Myanmar is perceived by the outside world.
In a less widely reported incident, Esther Htusan, the Associated Press correspondent in Yangon, recently fled to Bangkok after a prominent nationalist with more than 300,000 Facebook followers called her a “bitch” and said she should be killed if she “touches our leader”. Htusan declined to comment for this article. Other journalists in Myanmar have also been targeted. Kyaw Lin, a contributor to the Democratic Voice of Burma, was stabbed in the back recently by two unknown assailants on a motorbike when reporting in Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital.
Prosecutions of journalists under a draconian criminal libel offence pursuant to Article 66(d) of the country’s Telecommunications Law have surged. Swe Win, chief editor of the news website Myanmar Now, was arrested last year and charged over a Facebook post critical of U Wirathu, a Buddhist monk known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric. In January, the Committee to Protect Journalists “awarded” Aung San Suu Kyi the dubious distinction of being the world’s biggest backslider on press freedom in 2017.
I moved to South-East Asia for the Financial Times in September, in the first days of the military campaign against the Rohingya. I have reported from Myanmar three times since, most recently in January. Journalist visas are becoming harder to obtain. For my most recent visit, I had to give a detailed itinerary and sign a declaration that I would not visit “restricted and operational areas”. Journalists rarely want to become part of the story, but in Myanmar there is now a serious risk of this happening. Some expat correspondents based in Yangon are preparing to pack up and leave for good. When I asked to interview a prominent Buddhist nationalist group for this story, they agreed on the condition that I allow them to videotape the interview and publish it. (My local fixer advised I decline, and I did.) And late last year, when I was interviewing two human rights activists in a restaurant, I noticed a woman recording us on her phone. As we finished, she followed me out, still filming.
The sympathy the Rohingya have received in the outside world has inflamed anti-Muslim sentiments inside Myanmar, where most people agree with the official line that the country is under attack from terrorists and separatists. “Views inside and outside the country of what happened in Rakhine are not just different, they are diametrically opposed,” historian Thant Myint-U tells me. “Perceptions of the crisis have been veering in opposite directions for some time, but it’s the violence of the past year, and the vastly different narratives around what actually happened, that’s created an almost unbridgeable divide.”
Muslims, who make up four per cent of the population, have been part of the social fabric since long before the country, then known as Burma, gained independence from Britain in 1948. But since the 1970s they have faced growing restrictions on many basic rights, including in some cases citizenship and a 2015 law that allows private third parties to block mixed-faith marriages. Radical Buddhist monks have spread hatred of Islam. In 2015 the US Holocaust Museum commissioned a report on what it called “early warnings of genocide” in Myanmar. It focused primarily on the Rohingya, and mentioned the denial of citizenship, movement restrictions and “rampant hate speech”.
The Rohingya are now largely a people in exile; well over half of their pre-violence population lives abroad. Human rights advocates say there is a lingering risk both to those who remain and to the roughly one million non-Rohingya Muslims who still live in Myanmar’s Buddhist heartland. “The growth of hatred is very strong,” says Kyaw Win, a Muslim exile based in the UK who runs the Burma Human Rights Network. “Anything could trigger bloodshed. I’ve been saying since 2012 that Burma could become a second Bosnia or Rwanda, and it’s happening right now.”
Both ARSA and al-Qa’ida have threatened to strike inside the country, but it is by no means clear how serious these threats are. Some have gone so far as to speculate that the military, who have seen their popular support surge since August and who have been implicated in past outbreaks of communal violence, could stage a “false flag” attack to stir things up. “You get one bomb going off in Shwedagon pagoda [Yangon’s famous Buddhist shrine] and it’s going to be a bloodbath all over Myanmar,” one long-time expat told me.
The Irrawaddy ’s editors are all too aware of thecontroversy around their recent coverage, which has come up in private conversations with donors and their own staff. One afternoon in Yangon I meet Kyaw Zwa Moe, the English-language editor and younger brother of founder and editor-in-chief Aung Zaw. (I traded emails with Aung Zaw but he did not want to be interviewed.) The 46-year-old has a youthful look that belies the fact he spent eight years as a political prisoner. “We have two audiences: people in Myanmar and people in the international community,” he says. “We cover the news for both of them; we do what we are supposed to do.”
The problem, he says, “is that the international community sees our coverage differently: we are trying to portray the real situation of Myanmar, and also the very complex situation of Rakhine in this issue”. This remark echoes those made by Aung San Suu Kyi and other officials, who accuse foreigners of dwelling on the Rohingya crisis at the expense of the many other problems plaguing Myanmar — economic deprivation, the balance of power between the government and the military, and armed conflicts with other ethnic groups.
Kyaw Zwa Moe was a teenager in 1988 when anger against the regime swept into mass street protests. While his older brother took part in demonstrations, he was an activist at his high school. As the protests gathered strength, the regime responded with force. Aung Zaw was arrested and spent a brief time in prison before fleeing to Thailand. Kyaw Zwa Moe stayed on in Myanmar, publishing a clandestine political journal with his friends, but fell into the authorities’ net after Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and the military rounded up activists. He was tortured, with beatings and sleep deprivation, during what he calls “10 days in hell” at two interrogation centres, before being sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Over in Thailand, his brother was starting up The Irrawaddy with the aim of reporting on a country under censorship and military rule. The Irrawaddy launched its English-language website in 2000 and its Burmese one the following year (print editions were discontinued in 2015 and 2016, respectively). The organisation got funding from donors including the National Endowment for Democracy and George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. Kyaw Zwa Moe was freed in 1999 and fled to Thailand to join his brother.
In 2012, after the regime began negotiating a path towards democracy, Myanmar lifted censorship and the firewall blocking its internet, and The Irrawaddy opened an office in Yangon. Although still dependent on donors, it built up its readership and hired young expat journalists. Meanwhile, the opening up of the internet was increasing the influence of Buddhist extremists, which spread via websites, sermons, publications and videos.
When violence erupted in Rakhine in 2012, The Irrawaddy came under attack for using the word “Rohingya” in its coverage. In a 2013 opinion piece in The New York Times, Aung Zaw condemned the rise in hate speech and nationalism, and chided Aung San Suu Kyi, then in opposition. In 2014 Barack Obama granted The Irrawaddy an interview on his visit to Myanmar, and the Committee to Protect Journalists gave Aung Zaw a press freedom award, citing the pressure his publication faced from the authorities. That year, the publication’s website was hacked by unnamed attackers on the grounds that it “supports jihad and radical Muslims”.
But during campaigning for the landmark 2015 general election, some English-language editors began to notice a change. The Irrawaddy threw its full weight behind what was to be a successful bid for power by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). According to several of its former foreign journalists, the publication on occasion suppressed stories that would have cast the NLD in a bad light.
Kyaw Zwa Moe denies this, saying it does “not shy away” from criticism of Myanmar’s new democratic institutions. “We have published many critical stories on the NLD, including its failure to have Muslim candidates in the 2015 election,” he writes in an email. “Our mission is to help rebuild our country as a democratic society out of the debris of bad legacies, both under British colonialism and authoritarian rule, by practising hardcore journalism with loyalty to citizens.”
In 2016, The Irrawaddy ran one of its most controversial cartoons. Captioned “Me First”, it showed a dark-skinned, shirtless man wearing a sign reading “boat people” — obviously a Rohingya — barging his way to the front of a queue of people dressed in the garb of other ethnic groups. Then, after last August’s attacks, senior editors of the English-language website told staff they were to use the term “self-identifying Rohingya”, and then “Muslims in Rakhine” on the second reference.
As the violence in the country spread, arguments broke out at The Irrawaddy. Some foreign staff complained about the lack of Rohingya sources and the commissioning of stories that focused on Buddhists and Hindus uprooted in the violence, rather than the Rohingya. “It was a sad realisation to see people who fought so long for freedom were on the wrong side of something that would now define the history of the country going forward,” one of the expat former editors, speaking anonymously, told me. (Three out of four of the publication’s English copy editors quit over a short period last year.)
It was Ye Ni, editor of the Burmese-language edition, who signed off on the controversial “Me First” cartoon. “I understand the message that the cartoonist wants to say: Myanmar is a very fragile country with many other issues — civil war, economic development — not only the Rohingya issue,” he says, adding that editors were doing their part to eliminate hate speech in reader comments. “Since 2012, they accused The Irrawaddy of being … pro-Rohingya, national traitors because of our coverage of the conflict. We never changed.”
The publication isn’t alone in taking a more patriotic tone; other Burmese news sites with which it competes run coverage that often reflects a nationalist mindset. “The Irrawaddy’s reluctance to challenge the government narrative on the Rohingya crisis is very disappointing, but it represents a much broader failure of the pro-democracy movement — both inside and outside the NLD — to honour human rights principles in the face of dehumanising narratives of ‘illegal immigration’ and terrorism,” says Ben Dunant, a former English-language editor. The publication, he takes pains to add, remains “a relatively moderate voice on the crisis” in Rakhine, and has done “great work” in reporting on military abuses in other parts of Myanmar.
The growing blowback against legitimate newsgathering in Myanmar has affected The Irrawaddy as well as other publications. One of its reporters was arrested in Shan state last June and held for two months. Another was accosted in December by a group of villagers in northern Rakhine and interrogated by police officers for several hours. The Irrawaddy has joined foreign media in criticising the detention of the two Reuters reporters. Says Kyaw Zwa Moe: “All journalists here are under threat in a way when it comes to covering all sensitive issues.”
In January I interviewed Pe Myint, the information minister, in Myanmar’s sprawling new capital, Naypyidaw. The only address I was given — enough for the taxi driver — was Building Number Seven, a low-rise modernist block. Pe Myint is an ethnic Rakhine, a member of the mostly Buddhist ethnicity that give the state its name. Under the old regime he was a physician before becoming a writer, editor and translator of books ranging from Chekhov to US motivational series Chicken Soup for the Soul. In an interview with The Irrawaddy in March 2016, he promised to ensure press freedom.
In Pe Myint’s office, I was surprised to see cameras recording our interview. While we talked, the Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were in court in Yangon. I asked Pe Myint — who had been Wa Lone’s editor when the latter was a reporter at The People’s Age Journal — whether it was proper for a democratically ruled country to be jailing journalists. “I do not know the exact nature of what happened,” he said.
He spoke of the imperfect nature of Myanmar’s democratic transition, a point often made by members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. “I believe in democracy and I believe in freedom of expression, but you know that we are still not a full-fledged democracy,” he told me. “We are just transitioning to a democracy — we still have to build democratic institutions, legal infrastructure and other democratic practices.”
Trying to elicit a more robust response from the minister, I asked: did Pe Myint remember Wa Lone? He described him as a “young, active man”. Would the two get a fair trial? “I believe so,” he said. Was Myanmar a safe place to practise journalism? “You are an experienced reporter … you will know that this is relatively safer than most of the other places around the world.” I brought up the jailed reporters again. “We are still in the process of transition and we have to build democratic institutions,” he repeated. “We have to review existing laws and practices.”
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s estrangement from the West is growing. At the end of January, veteran US diplomat Bill Richardson — who’d advocated for the democracy movement when Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest — created a stir when he quit her advisory group on Rakhine, which he described as a “whitewash”. (He also said she was “furious” when he brought up the case of the two jailed reporters.)
The Irrawaddy, for its part, is determined to pursue its editorial line. It now has two reporters in Bangladesh, Kyaw Zwa Moe says. It has also dialled back its use of “self-identifying” before the word Rohingya. The qualifier, he says, was “just a temporary use”; the publication had reintroduced Rohingya “when people’s feelings calmed down a bit”. In future, he adds, it will use both as it sees fit. This recalibration is one of many now going on among journalists covering Myanmar, a country whose story has become that much harder — and that much more important — to tell to the world.
The Financial Times