International Coverage of Myanmar Crisis Sparks Criticism

In the past month, an estimated 420,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh, as a result of what a UN official has referred to as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Many in Myanmar, however, are criticizing news organizations for showing a bias in their reporting towards the Rohingya refugees without devoting enough coverage to the complexity of the crisis that has also caused the displacement of other ethnic groups.

According to Voice of America, criticism has come from those in Myanmar who believe coverage of the Rohingya crisis has been biased against the Buddhist majority. There are claims that Muslims are influencing coverage at news organizations like BBC and that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is paying journalists to produce stories focused on the displacement of the Muslim minority group.  

Many also aim their criticism towards media organizations not addressing the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacks that influenced the Myanmar military to institute a crackdown, leading to the deaths and displacement of Buddhist, Hindu and other ethnic groups in addition to the Rohingya.

The focused coverage on the Rohingya may be a result of the limited knowledge news organizations have of the Rakhine state, according to Voice of America. News media has had limited access to the area of the central conflict, and the media that visited was guided through press trips.

The Rohingya has resided in Myanmar since the 12th century, according to Al Jazeera. When Myanmar was under British rule from 1824 to 1948, a large number of migrant laborers came into the country from India and Bangladesh. According to a Human Rights Watch report, the Myanmar government, after gaining independence, considered the migration during British occupation illegal and refused citizenship to a large portion of Rohingya.  

The Rohingya have not been eligible for citizenship in Myanmar since a 1982 citizenship law failed to recognize them as one of the 135 ethnic groups in the country, although they have resided in the western coastal state of Rakhine for years.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army has since developed within the Rakhine state and has been involved in conflicts with nearby ethnic groups as well as with various police officers, according to BBC. The recent military crackdown on the Rohingya that caused the current refugee crisis followed an Aug. 25 attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on police posts, which killed 12 people.

The conflict that resulted has not just impacted the Rohingya, but surrounding ethnic groups as well. On Sept. 8, a Buddhist monk posted a video on Facebook in which he claimed, “32 villages were destroyed,” and that “Muslim extremists did it,” according to Voice of America.

In addition to Buddhist populations in the area, Hindus from the Rakhine state have also been affected by the crisis. The HindustanTimes has reported that hundreds have since fled to India. Many Hindu refugees say they fear returning to the Buddhist-majority state of Myanmar, but are also troubled by staying in majority-Muslim Bangladesh.

Many are criticizing Myanmar’s de facto leader and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi for not calling the the crisis “ethnic cleansing.” She said in a speech last week that this crisis does not just impact the Rohingya.

“Those who have had to flee their homes are many. Not just Muslims and [Buddhist] Rakhines but also small minority groups such as Daing-net, Mro, Thet, Mramagyi and Hindus, of whose presence most of the world is totally unaware,” Suu Kyi said.

The level of influence Suu Kyi has over the country’s military is questionable.

According to CNN, the constitution Myanmar adopted  in 2008 gave the commander-in-chief ultimate authority over the military, thus overriding the president. It states that in the event of an emergency, the commander-in-chief has, “the right to take over and exercise State sovereign power.”

According to the Human Rights Watch’s 2016 report on Myanmar, military forces have continuously led crackdowns on members of the Rakhine state, often killing, raping and torturing members of the community.

Much of the efforts by the United Nations (UN) to address the recent crisis have been focused on bringing aid to the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina suggested to the UN General Assembly on Thursday that “safe zones” under the supervision of the UN should be established in Myanmar.

The crisis in Myanmar is complex, affecting a wide range of ethnic groups within a country whose government has limited control over its military. Journalists are tasked with attempting to gain access to areas hardest hit by the crisis, and to report on concerns of equal importance to the various groups affected.  

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