By Francis Wade
Several key elements of the spiraling sectarian violence in western Burma are not getting picked up on by media. There is of course an issue with verification, particularly in a situation like this where emotions can fuel propaganda, where communication is very difficult and where the conflict is so inflammatory. But nevertheless it’s worth bringing them to the table.
One thing people seem loath to report is the blatantly racist element to the unrest, which Buddhist Burmese and Arakanese must take the bulk of responsibility for (perhaps however it is because they have greater access to media in which to vent opinions).
This is even apparent among Burma’s pro-democracy leaders, the so-called “forces for change” in the country. Prominent activist Ko Ko Gyi said that the presence of Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority which has born the brunt of the rioting, is “infringing on Burma’s sovereignty”. A friend told me today that he’d received an email from a former political prisoner stating that, “if western nations really believed in human rights, they would take the Rohingya from us.”
The role of security forces in the violence has also been underreported, which contributes to statements like this one yesterday from an EU spokesperson: “We believe that the security forces are handling this difficult intercommunal violence in an appropriate way.” That does not marry with reports from locals on the ground.
At least four people have told me that police are acting alongside Arakanese in torching homes of Muslims, while several reports have emerged of police opening fire on crowds of Muslims (NB: Muslims are forbidden from entering Burma’s police force or army – this does carry significance when violence is of this nature). An NGO worker said last night that her family friend, a former politician from Sittwe, has been killed after being arrested over the weekend, while AFP reports that a Rohingya shot by Burmese police has died in Bangladesh.
The UN is unlikely to act unless there is clear complicity in the violence by state agents. The trouble is however that with few journalists or observers on the ground, those responsible for the deaths (which could well be in the hundreds by now) are hard to pinpoint. The UN has withdrawn staff from the region, but Human Rights Watch has urged the government to allow observers in.
There also seems to be something of a PR campaign to cast Muslims as those behind the killings (to make clear, Muslim groups are not innocent bystanders, but have also been involved in arson attacks across the state). One such example is the shaving of the heads of dead victims, often Muslims, and dressing them in monks robes – “and they (media) will take photos of this fake monk corpse to show to the world that these dead bodies were murdered by Muslim [sic]”, one source wrote.
In keeping with past instances of anti-Muslim fever in Burma, the internet has been awash with vitriol. A piece I published on Al Jazeera only yesterday has already attracted 150 comments – they’re a pretty good window into how the debate runs. What is conspicuously absent in all this is any rational debate – indeed most comments, even from the veterans of unrest in Burma, do not tackle the unfolding crisis, but instead exploit it as a means to vent their own bigotry.