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When it comes to current events in Myanmar, Western media has been frustratingly silent. While the Rohingya crisis in 2015 and the military coup in 2021 received some level of coverage, popular media outlets in the US, Canada, and Western Europe have failed to continually highlight the issues and level of danger Burmese citizens face every day. Most reporting centers on the civil protests in urban centers around the country, yet over 27,000 people have been killed nationwide since the 2021 coup, with more than 2,000 of these deaths being civilians. Distinct local manifestations of conflict have begun or flared up after a period of stagnation around the country to yield these large death tolls. Yet, these skirmishes remain all but invisible in broader media coverage. Furthermore, 1.3 million individuals have been estimated to have been displaced by national armed forces thus far.
In the context of the ever-slowly evolving international response to injustice in Myanmar, the potential for increased action by global actors requires greater explanation now more than ever. Through a closer examination of the relevant historical context to the current circumstances in Myanmar, the nation’s current civil unrest raises important questions regarding the criteria for what gets covered in mainstream media and highlights the disproportionate representation that the affairs of some nations receive.
What Reporters Miss – A Brief History of Myanmar
While mainstream media occasionally tries to capture Myanmar’s recent history for its readership, they frequently come up short, opting to describe impending causes rather than reaching further back into its colonial history. Granted, Burmese history is undoubtedly complex and most casual readers likely do not want to sift through an exhausting account of history to keep up to date with current events. The non-inclusion of important events since the end of colonial rule, however, risks dishonestly framing the revolution as a unified civilian insurgency. Conflicts like the ongoing Karen rebellion demonstrate that not only is Burmese colonial history very relevant to the current revolution, but this romanticized notion of a unified resistance with a singular goal could not be further from the case.
Before proclaiming independence in 1948, Myanmar was incorporated as a province of India under British colonial rule as Burma. The Bamar people in Burma were often disadvantaged despite being the province’s largest ethnic group. British colonialists granted Chinese, Indian, and smaller ethnic communities living in the province better opportunities for social and economic mobility. Granting them certain privileges provoked Bamar’s resentment toward British rule, which only grew as the colonial government retaliated violently against Bamar protestors. After Burma achieved its independence, the new Bamar majority government denied sovereignty to the same ethnic communities that were privileged under the British rule, like the Karen people. The antagonism between these communities before independence led to the Karen people’s efforts to acquire some level of autonomy or outright separation from the state ever since.
The 80 years after Myanmar’s independence can be characterized by the growing political influence of the military, known as the Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw played an instrumental part in achieving independence from the British and was highly trusted by the public, especially after they took a leading role in ‘guiding’ the country towards civilian socialist governance. This supposedly socialist government was deemed to be unpopular and ineffective by the broader Burmese population mainly due to its autocratic tendencies and impoverishing effects, which stood in contrast to its proposed socialist alleviation of poor living conditions and lack of infrastructure for the rural poor. In response, the military stepped into a more official governing capacity, running a military junta between 1988 and 2010. Throughout this time, the Tatmadaw was responsible for fighting against various ethnic armed groups, with a highly complex history of inter- and intra- group conflicts and ceasefires attributed to each group’s antagonism with the state military.
Tracing this history, it is clear that the Burmese military, in collaboration with the political elite, has maintained far more control over the country than most Western observers realized. From an outside perspective, the advent of democratic rule in 2016 with the election of Aung San Suu Kyi was perceived as a major triumph for human rights in the region. Although mainstream media heralded her rise to power in 2011 as a progressive step forward, the 60-year period of both overt and covert military rule would require much more than a Nobel laureate to overcome.
The military’s role in exacerbating the 2017 Rohingya crisis is a testament to this assertion; despite being the head of state at the time, the execution and forced resettlement of the Rohingya people by the Buddhist Rakhine were aided by the military under Aung San Suu Kyi’s watch. Whether she was directly involved in these decisions or coerced into doing so is only speculative, but what is clear is that traditional Western framing of conflicts in Myanmar and often the Global South are ill-equipped to explain necessary nuances.
Complacency or Complexity? The West and Myanmar
What does this lack of coverage mean? It has been argued by authors Nicholas Farrelly and Adam Simpson that the geopolitical significance of events in areas like Ukraine is more relevant to the West and thus receives more attention, but it is not as if there are no Western interests at play in Myanmar. American multinational corporations like H&M and Chevron still operate in the country and its abundant natural resources of oil, lumber, and jade regularly attract international investment despite recent sanctions and disinvestment. While this small bit of background knowledge might be beneficial, most news articles do not even engage with it, let alone provide a macro-level context of the places they report.
While a coup and nationwide protests are worth discussion on their own, the genocide of ethnic Rohingya people in the southern Rakhine state remains ongoing. Armed ethnic separatism in conflict with the Burmese military has flared up for historically oppressed ethnic groups like the Karen, Shan, and Kachin after the coup, perpetuating a long cycle of swinging between ceasefire negotiations and active insurgency against the state. The situation has evolved into resembling a full-blown, country-wide civil war with numerous belligerents, yet the radio silence of Western publications becomes indefensible.
So, the central question remains: why are we not hearing about it more often? Another explanation for Western media’s silence is that the repression of journalists and censorship of media under the military junta has made it difficult for accurate information to come out. Statistics about death tolls and numbers of arrested individuals are hard to find, especially when the conflict has historically distinct manifestations in almost every state of Myanmar. The increased censorship that has transpired since the most recent military takeover has not helped this case either. Yet, the absence of Western media coverage of Myanmar implies that their conflict does not significantly impact the US, Canada, or other Western countries. The Russia-Ukraine war, for instance, directly affects gas prices, national security, and politics in Western countries, thus receiving greater attention in mainstream media. While national interests will almost always influence what is covered in the news, the extent to which they directly coincide now is unsustainable for a number of reasons.
Beyond National Interest Towards An Internationally Mindful Media
The relative lack of response by Western governments to conflict in Myanmar has correlated with vague coverage of the nation’s turmoil by Western media. Together, they have made it abundantly clear: Western (specifically US) interests do not align with helping rebel groups in Myanmar. As previously mentioned, many multinational corporations have a vested interest in maintaining the instability of Myanmar to benefit from cheap labour, low-cost land, and abundant natural resources. This geopolitical reality does not mean, however, that the news cycle must fall into the same trap of relentlessly following political and economic interests.
When Western media is incentivized to optimize traffic and advertising revenues, this results in the coverage of conflicts based on politics and public perception. The most relevant problem with this strategy – among many others – is that it frequently minimizes the scale of some conflicts over others. While the protests in Iran and the war in Ukraine undoubtedly deserve attention, the sheer disparity in the news about Myanmar would lead most people to infer that it is a relatively low-intensity conflict when, in fact, the number of casualties is similar in scale. It is important to recognize that directly comparing conflicts and instances of suffering as they unfold is often counterproductive and potentially harmful. Yet, the figure of 15,000 protestors detained in Myanmar and Iran serves as a touchstone for the level of proportional severity in both conflicts. Even though there are innumerable differences between what is happening in both countries, one is (rightfully) receiving a lot of coverage, while the other is not.
What are some solutions to this problem of minimization in the media? Complexity is often cast aside in favour of simple, easy-to-digest narratives of ‘good guys vs. bad guys’ – one could argue that this straightforward framing is part of why Ukraine has received such an outpouring of support. Nevertheless, making an effort to uncover the nuances through historical and contemporary analysis sidesteps the common journalistic pitfalls of oversimplification and misrepresentation. While there is nationwide civil resistance towards the Burmese military, understanding why they came to be such a respected institution of stability in the context of Myanmar’s independence from Britain and post-independence unrest adds an important complication to a ‘good vs. evil’ narrative. Significantly, the opposition National Unity Government is a coalition composed of ethnic and political groups that each have their agenda, whether it be autonomy, secession, or simply greater representation at the national level.
Unfortunately, simplicity is an unrealistic luxury too often indulged in international affairs. If we truly care about the potential implications of reporting on issues outside our own, a certain level of effort and equality is essential. There are a lot of possible benefits to this approach as well. The Burmese people can gain from an outpouring of public support through a similar level of media attention afforded to other conflicts. More internationally mindful reporting and media consumption are not just possible, but necessary in a globalized world.
Edited by Light Naing