Aung San Suu Kyi, the embattled State Counsellor of Myanmar, recently formed a committee aimed at creating economic development in Rakhine State. The committee, known as the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine (UEHRD) was swamped with donations from private donors almost immediately after Suu Kyi implored business leaders across Myanmar to aid in the reconstruction of Rakhine State, which has been at the epicentre of international condemnation following the displacement of an alleged 600,000 self-identifying Rohingya Muslims.
This drive led to an impromptu ‘competition’ of donations, which to date has raised over $13m, with corporations from Kanbawza to FMI. Additionally, nations around the world pledged $345m at a UN conference on Monday, which, though positive, places further pressure on Suu Kyi’s civilian government to deliver.
What exactly is the UEHRD? In a nationally televised address to the nation on October 12th, Suu Kyi described how the initiative would be overseeing the return and resettlement of refugees – more than 600,000 refugees (both Rohingya Muslims and non-Muslim ethnic minority citizens, with varying estimates) are alleged to have been displaced by the conflict.
The UEHRD will comprise of 9 separate task forces, namely: construction and infrastructure, economic zones of development, job creation and vocational training, healthcare, micro-financing, crowd-funded fundraising, tourism promotion and public relations and information.
UEHRD, it should be noted, was set up to facilitate the recommendations made by the Kofi Annan Advisory Commission, and will be led by Suu Kyi herself, with Win Myat Aye being her deputy. The initiative has so far been delicately welcomed by international observers, and is currently working to incorporate youth. Baby steps, it must be noted, yet progress nonetheless. However, this does not mean that flaws escape scrutiny.
The most crippling immediate problem facing the revised Rakhine strategy relates to the dissemination of information, especially with regards to international reviews. This problem, it should be noted, is far from new. It has had one of the worst effects on Myanmar’s global image, which in turn has allowed several western media outlets to over-simplify the complexities of the problems in Rakhine State.
The watered-down rhetoric of Buddhist Rakhines committing wide scale “genocide” against the Muslim Rohingyas are not only highly misleading, but also dangerous. Coverage by the international media has led to widespread condemnation and vilification of the once revered Suu Kyi, with international self-described ‘leaders’ calling on her to speak up for the Rohingya. Even British universities have lately been compelled to express their ‘outrage‘.
The Inanity of Condemnation
Condemning Suu Kyi, as repeatedly mentioned by experts, fails to serve any meaningful purpose, for she has the unenviable dilemma of managing one-sided international pressure, an irate domestic public and having to cooperate with the military. Foreign media outlets incensed by such injustices fail to factor in how their largely one-sided coverage is contributing to a local public increasingly angered and contemptuous of Western media.
‘Fake news’, ‘liars,’ ‘Muslim-lobbying’ and ‘terrorist-apologists,’ are some of the many monikers now employed in a backlash against the media. These accusations are not helped by BBC correspondents, such as Jonah Fisher, seemingly in defense of terrorists, nor by the failure of outlets to mention the deaths of ethnic minorities killed by Rohingyas during the height of the conflict, namely the Mro, Daingnet, Thet, Kaman, Maramagyi and Hindu minorities. How was this treated? With cries of conspiracies on the side of the Myanmar government. This evident double standard fails again to critically examine the issues, resorting instead to sensationalist simplification.
This distrust has extended towards local media units as well, with reporters from the Frontier Myanmar being chased out by locals that branded them as peddlers of wrong news. What is ironic in this aspect is that liberal-leaning media sources had been de facto banned by the former military regime; they had been labelled as, ‘lying’ and ‘inflammatory’ in state newspapers. A pro-military rally was recently held, showing solidarity with the military response – almost unimaginable only a few years ago.
Yet blaming shallow foreign media coverage alone would be misguided. The Myanmar government – in particular, the Ministry of Information and the military – share a measure of fault towards contributing to the exacerbation of the crisis.
This fault relates primarily to the way in which journalists were initially denied entry, along with the delivery of information. Both were hallmarks of the old junta government, with little being changed. This further points to a lack of capacity within the organization in turn mirroring a failure to take advantage of regime change. On the tactical front, the military, on its part, fell exactly into the trap ensnared by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – the instigators of the current crisis – leaving much to be desired regarding its counter-terrorism operations.
ARSA’s modus operandi, as highlighted by Bertil Linter, poses stark similarities to that of the Nepali Maoists. Their initial attacks on remote border guard posts (timed to coincide with the release of the Annan commission, no less) consisted of groups of conscripted Rohingya villagers and trained combatants killing guards and making away with weapons.
The Myanmar army reported, following the attacks, that they had killed up to 500 terrorists – the vast majority of whom would almost certainly have been the aforementioned conscripted villagers. If this 500 had all been ARSA trained militants, the organization would cease to exist, let alone be able to issue a temporary ceasefire. Details of the degree of success of ARSA’s radicalization efforts are not known, although what is confirmed is their widespread outreach and potential ties to Islamists abroad.
Additionally, it has largely failed to actively discredit the charges labelled against it – an example being the landmines placed along the border. Foreign media has stated how the landmines were meant to prevent Rohingyas from escaping.
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Questions are raised from this notion: why would the Myanmar army prevent them from doing so if they had allegedly been trying to drive them away? Why would the army use home-made landmines, when state manufactured ones are so much easier and less time consuming to obtain? Rebuffing these questions deters credibility, not only in the eyes of the international community but among the domestic public as well, because the oft-employed strategy of outright denial is increasingly wearing thin.
The UEHRD’s information unit thus has a number of challenges to overcome. The initiation of a collaborative framework offers Suu Kyi the chance to revamp the information delivery for foreign outlets-simply allowing them access to the areas will not be enough. A carefully constructed media strategy involving both state-level actors, civil society organizations/non-profits, local residents and local and foreign media outlets must be drawn in order to construct the clearest picture of the on-ground situation.
A ‘media watchdog’ can prove positive, and should not be seen as encouraging censorship. The government and the military’s information units need to move beyond the propaganda-esque delivery of the past, as seen during the much televised “Talk on the Rakhine Issue: Discussion on Finding Solutions”, which served little more than a glorified echo chamber without a proper constructive discussion being conducted.
Mobilization of the public is another desirable course of action. The UEHRD, as mentioned, still has plenty of work to do – the most crucial aspect being the creation of a media platform facilitating unbiased scrutiny. On the side of the foreign media, the callous misuse of buzzwords to elicit a reader response – an unavoidable consequence of the social media age – can massively hinder any efforts of reconciliation in the long run. Covering the crisis in Myanmar requires recognition of the very real and devastating consequences that it entails – not only for the communities involved, but in the wider geopolitical sense.
Aung Zin graduated with a degree in International Relations from Durham University, and will be taking up a Masters in Public Policy at the University of Nottingham. He is the Head of Strategic Relations at the Myanmar Students’ Union-United Kingdom and Eire. Currently serving as a Research Assistant at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ International Studies unit, he is working on setting up an internship program for Myanmar university students in Southeast Asia-based Myanmar embassies.
This article is published in collaboration with The Market Mogul and can be found here.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.