Since the rise of Myanmar’s Buddhist government in 2012, there has been greater conflict between the country’s Rohingya Muslim population and its government. The conflict prompted the rise of a Muslim insurgency called the Faith Movement which has consistently clashed with the Myanmar military. Recently, the country has seen an increase of violence between the Rohingya Muslims in the north, with massive reports documenting human rights violations such as rape and burning of homes and villages.
Since October, the military response led to about 30,000 people being internally displaced while some 27,000 fled to Bangladesh for refuge. Many of these reports in regards to the conflict have come from direct accounts of the refugees that were able to flee to Bangladesh.
With the rise of hatred, military violence and human rights violations against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, there has been disagreement within international media surrounding shifting the frame of the conflict from a crisis to an ethnic cleansing or genocide. In November of last year, Foreign Policy labeled the issue in Myanmar as “a genocide in the making.” Myanmar has made several genocide and ethnic cleansing watch lists such as United to End Genocide, Genocide Watch, International Crisis Group and United States Institute of Peace.
Myanmar’s position on these watch lists begs the question: what role does the media play in marking a conflict as a genocide? Additionally, what is the media’s role in reporting on genocide? Is it accountability or is it presenting the facts and letting their audience come up with their own conclusions?
Myanmar itself has denied reports of human rights crimes and violations occurring against the Rohingya Muslims. When governments issue blanket denials against atrocities, there are not many institutions other than the international media with a capacity to disprove them.
It doesn’t help that independent journalists have been barred from entering western Rakhine, the zone where most of the reported violence has occurred. This blatant censorship creates an information gap problem for the international audience and leaves Myanmar security forces to continue acting without accountability.
In 2015, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit “uncovered strong evidence” of a genocide coordinated by the Myanmar government against the Rohingya by inciting anti-Muslim riots and communal violence. Documents, interviews with displaced persons, and testimonies from former and current military officials obtained by the unit over an eight-month period were assessed by both the Yale University Law School and the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London, and incorporated into the documentary “Genocide Agenda.”
Al Jazeera’s initiative marks a stark contrast to how genocide has been historically reported. The most recent genocides in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and Darfur to name a few, have been set against the backdrop of civil war, making it hard for foreign correspondents to distinguish war casualties and civilian extermination.
Reporting about genocide also involves judgement calls that the media is reluctant to entitle, as to not perpetuate sensationalism or even as a result of a lack of information. BBC and Reuters in their reporting are careful to alternate statements from UN officials and Myanmar government officials when reporting.
However, when senior UN officials like John McKissick, head of the UN refugee agency in a border town in Bangladesh, call the conflict a case of ethnic cleansing the true nature of the conflict becomes much harder to define when the label is inconsistently used.
As a Muslim counter-insurgency group rises in response to the violence against the Rohingya, the understanding of the civilian genocide is at risk of being attributed to the conflict between the Myanmar government and the Faith Movement. As international news agencies cover this conflict, no government has put out a statement recognizing the conflict as a genocide.
While her government has issued statements refuting claims of genocide, leader Aung San Suu Kyi has met the alleged state-sponsored killings with inaction and silence, baffling the international human rights community.