Myanmar Buddhists Say International Media Is 'Unfair'
Viewpoint by Kalinga Seneviratne
This article is the 26th in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate.
YANGON, Myanmar (IDN) – When I checked into a hotel at 10.00 pm in Central Yangon near the iconic Sule Pagoda, seeing a lot of South Asian Muslims around the place, I asked the hotel reception if it was safe to walk up the road to get some dinner. The receptionist laughed and said: "It is very safe here, sir."
For the next eight days in December, I lived in the heart of a Muslim Bengali/Indian community. I walked around the place late at night and early mornings and found that it is a very peaceful community where the Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians interact well.
The Sule Pagoda is just two streets away, and right next to it the Bengali Sunni Central Mosque. There are four Christian cathedrals (of course built by the British), two Hindu temples and numerous small Buddhist temples.
The Buddhist nuns chanted Pali sutras for about two hours every Saturday night and these were broadcast through a loudspeaker right into the Muslim community – without any problems whatsoever; perhaps both Muslims and Buddhists consider it a blessing.
Mosques broadcast their call to prayer on the loudspeakers (no problem for Buddhists either); Hindus ring their temple bells and play the drums for morning prayer; Christians have decorated the streets for Christmas and are having a huge fair and a Christian concert on a stage erected in a park next to a church and right in front of the Sule Pagoda.
No one had a problem with the Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims joining in the Christmas festivities. The only problem I noted was a group of Christians led by a White missionary distributing leaflets in Burmese about Jesus right opposite the Sule Pagoda. He told me, “We want the Burmese to know about the peaceful message of Jesus”. But I asked myself, “Are they trying to create conflict on such a festive occasion?”
During the eight days of my stay, I met Buddhists working in the media, scholars at the university and some working directly with the government to find out the media needs of the Buddhist community in Myanmar.
The overwhelming message I got was that the international (meaning western) media was “unfair” on Myanmar. They feel the Buddhists are misrepresented overseas. They may have a point, as people overseas hardly hear about such scenes I just described.
When I did a Google search as part of my research before the trip, all I got were pages and pages of articles on Rohingyas and 'hate speech' by monks of Ma Ba Tha, an organization banned by the government. Many Buddhists I spoke to said that it is suspected to be a front for the military.
However Buddhists strongly believe that there are foreign forces that are trying to destablise Myanmar to exploit its strategic location by manipulating its delicate ethnic mix.
"In big cities we don't have problems. Most problems are in border areas," explains Arthur Myint, Registrar, Abhidhamma Propagation Association. He adds that most Rakhine people see Rohingyas as invaders, with corrupt border controls having contributed to the problem.
"The real issue is very much socio-economic," argues Toe Zaw Latt, Operations Manager of Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). "Some minority communities are very rich. Muslim shop owners and their communities are rich. It is easy to report it as a religious issue rather than analyse it as a socio-economic issue."
During the military regime, DVB was set up with Norwegian funding and operated from overseas. But, today it is registered as a local media company broadcasting via satellite and through social media platforms.
Toe Zaw says that since 2013 there is a lot of media freedom in the country and along with it nationalism has come to the surface. “More freedom means nationalist issues get more exposure," he adds.
After Ma Ba Tha was banned in 2017, it was basically reincarnated via the Buddha Dhamma Parahita National Foundation vowing to protect Buddhism in the country – which they see as a citizen’s right under the 2008 Constitution. I meet its chairman, a soft spoken senior monk Ashin Tilokabhivamsa at Ywana Payiyarti Monastery on the outskirts of Yangon.
He argues that what Myanmar has is an immigration problem and that Islamisation is creeping into the country via the Rakhine state. “NGOs are creating this problem, and the media and the UN is under the control of international NGO money,” he claims.
When asked about the “extremist” label given to Ma Ba Tha monks, he replies: “Ours is true speech and historic facts. We never lie, we speak the truth. This hate speech is like if you show a bottle of honey and keep on saying this is poison, people will ultimately believe it and not touch it," he says, adding: “That is the western media”.
Retired Myanmar diplomat Sein Wen Aung believes that monks have risen up with nationalist sentiments because of interference in the country’s internal affairs by foreigners.
“There are over 1000 INGOs (international non-govenmental organisations) operating here and contributing to conflict,” he notes, explaining how the West uses such agencies to destablise countries, which don’t toe their line.
“They use these NGOs to distribute information to change governments (from within). It is very dangerous,” he argues. “The minister (of information) recently asked independent media supported from outside to be ethical.”
Contrary to foreign media reports, it is the Buddhist who are disadvantaged in Myanmar, argues Sein Wen. “Islamic people are supported by OIC (Organisation of Islamic Countries) and also many NGOs here are Christian getting support from overseas. Buddhists don't have such support,” he laments.
With the opening up of Myanmar’s media, there has been an influx of foreign trainers. But, many Buddhist media practitioners believe their methods of free media practices are not adequate to report the complex socio-economic issues in the country. Because the media was suppressed for so long such analytical reporting is yet to be developed.
“Lot of journalism trainers are coming here. They are dominated by INGOs. They brainwash our young people,” says one local media manager who does not want to be named. He says because of such indoctrination, most journalists believe that they have to keep away from nationalist interests. He argues that young journalists need to be taught ethics to report in such a manner that their work protects national interests, which is not necessarily supporting the government or military.
Giving the 43rd Singapore Lecture in August 2018, Aung San Suu Kyi argued passionately about the need to bring development to the poor border states to establish long-term peace and prosperity in her country. She said addressing the terrorist problem in Rakhine state was fundamental to it. She noted that people living outside pick and choose what to report. And they see the Rakhine issue differently to those living inside.
With the current skirmishes between Arakan Army and the military in Rakhine state, this may provide local journalists in particular, the opportunity to focus on socio-economics of the conflicts. The Arakan Army is predominantly Buddhist, but they are not fighting a religious war. This also challenges the western media narrative of the Myanmar army as a “Buddhist Army”.
Tow Zaw warns the media against focusing on religion to report on socio-economic conflicts. “Our transitional community is very fragile,” he argues. “It is not good to use religion to report (socio-economic) political action,” he cautions.
Photo: The Sule Pagoda and Bengali Sunni Central Mosque located side by side in Central Yangon. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne