RANGOON — Burma’s government on Wednesday announced that it is banning Time magazine Asia’s July 1st issue because of controversy in the country over its cover, which features a photo of nationalist monk U Wirathu with the headline “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”
“To prevent the occurrence of racial and religious conflict, the Central Management Committee for Emergency Periods has announced in the name of public interest not to allow sales, reproduction, distribution or possession of ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror’ article from Time’s July 1 issue,” said a statement in government newspaper The New Light of Myanmar.
“We have found that Time’s coverage can cause misunderstandings and jeopardize the interfaith trust-building that the government is trying to implement,” it said.
Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that he had initiated the action against Time by raising concerns over the article with the President-led committee, which was created in late March to address inter-communal unrest.
On Tuesday, Inwa Publications, the Burmese distributor of Time, had already said it would scrap sales of its 600 copies of Time, due to local reactions to the cover story. The firm’s manager Maung Maung Lwin said “that, as Buddhists, we should not distribute the July 1st issue of Time magazine.”
Daniel Kile, a spokesperson for Time Inc., told The Irrawaddy in a reaction from New York that the company stood by the cover article.
“TIME’s international cover story is a thoughtful, well-reported piece that shows the presence in Myanmar of an extremist movement that associates itself with Buddhism,” he wrote in an email. “TIME is pleased by the debate and discussion this important piece has raised.”
Time magazine Asia’s cover story explores the rise of aggressive, nationalist teachings among Buddhist monks in Burma and other parts of Asia, such as Sri Lanka, and the role of radical monks like U Wirathu in instigating unrest between groups of different faiths.
U Wirathu leads the so-called ‘969’ campaign, which urges Buddhists to shun Burma’s Muslim minority communities and to support only Buddhist-owned businesses. It has been accused of stirring up bloody inter-communal violence in Burma during the past year.
Burma’s government — made up predominantly by Buddhist politicians and officials — has been accused of failing to act against the anti-Muslim attacks that have left about 250 people dead and more than 100,000 displaced. Human rights groups allege it has actively supported the violence.
Time’s cover has offended many in Burma because they feel it couples the country’s Buddhist tradition and its revered monks with terror and violence.
On Wednesday, members of the Myanmar Press Council decried the ban on Time’s article, adding that the role of the Central Management Committee for Emergency Periods in influencing media freedom was troubling.
“Now, [the committee] took this decision, it seems they have the right to do so. This is really worrisome for press freedom,” said Thiha Saw, the chief editor of the weekly Open Journal. “It appears as if the committee is going to handle this issue without involvement of the Ministry of Information and the Myanmar Press Council.”
Thiha Saw said however, that he disapproved of Time magazine’s cover story, citing some of the same reasons that the government used to justify its ban.
“The writing style of the author not only hurts Buddhism but also instigates [inter-communal] violence,” he said, “We cannot just blame U Wirathu. There is an impression that the present conflict is only led by monks, but someone else is behind it.”
Thiha Saw also said that the views of moderate Burmese monks had not been adequately represented in Time’s story, adding “it’s not good to write one-sidedly.”
Myint Kyaw, a US-educated journalist and media trainer, said the government’s ban was pointless as Time’s article would not impact Burma’s communal tensions. Officials concerned about inter-communal violence, he said, would do better to direct their attention towards curbing anti-Muslim attacks and reining in the divisive 969 movement.
“Instead of capturing the culprits in the violence, they are exaggerating this [Time article] issue. That’s because issuing an order is easy, but those who destabilize local communities have not been identified,” Myint Kyaw said.
“Have they heard what is being preached at the 969 sermons? Those sermons have been instigating [violence].”