The Dangers of Decency

Who would have thought that decency would be a bad thing in a journalist, intellectually and professionally speaking? But when it comes to Burma, that certainly seems to be the case.

There is no such thing as unbiased reporting or scholarship. That much is settled among those who know the inevitably biased nature of interpreting the world, whether it be through scholarship or journalism.

So I don’t fault journalists for their biases and editorial and publishing slants.

However, when it comes to reporting Burma, the coverage has been beyond biased. It is generally horribly inadequate, or downright incorrect.

From a Burmese perspective—especially from the perspective of those who have borne the brunt of the half-century of military rule under various and evolving disguises—the way Burma is being reported is like adding insult to injury.

Take, for instance, the media’s standard framing of the violence against the Rohingya and now the other Muslims of Burma as “communal” or “sectarian.”

Otherwise decent and intelligent international publications continue to get it all wrong. The Economist, for instance, recently published an article about “Communal violence in Myanmar” that came with this subheading: “Sectarian violence was not supposed to be part of Myanmar’s bright new direction.”

Empirically speaking—not that one should hold any mass media coverage to the standards of empirical research—there is absolutely nothing sectarian or communal about the violence that has been unleashed in waves and phases by the organized Buddhist mobs and executed with “brutal efficiency,” as the UN special envoy for Burma, Vijay Nambiar, put it. The violence against the now terrorized and permanently displaced populations of Rohingyas and other Muslims in 15 towns across the country is one-way, organized, and state-backed.

Overwhelmingly, it has been one single community that has borne the death and devastation wrought by all this violence: the Muslims, including the Rohingyas and Muslims who are ethnically Burmese.

So why has the media kept getting even a rather straightforward story—that organized Buddhist monks were killing Muslims in broad daylight before the presence of armed security personnel—wrong?

Why has it failed to connect the two simple dots between local security troops’ inaction and Naypyidaw’s central command?

Burma’s security troops were reportedly ordered to “do nothing,” as evidenced in a local investigative report published in the New York Times. The same observation was made by UN Special Rapporteur Tomas Quintana in an AFP report that was released on the same day.

Further, the state-organized and controlled fire department also put out fires only in Buddhist homes, while it let Muslim houses, shops and mosques burn to ashes, as local eyewitnesses told the EU-funded NGO, the Euro-Burma Office, while the pogrom in Meikhtila was still unfolding from March 20-22.

Whatever their editorial stances or slants, one major problem that keeps the journalists from reporting intelligently, professionally and realistically about Burma is that journalists are decent human beings who think, feel and view things from a human perspective, informed by their own human decency. Burma, on the other hand, is ruled by sociopaths and psychopaths who will stop at nothing to defend their power, wealth and delusions.

This means that journalists end up trashing reality-grounded views as “extremist” and “incredible” and dismiss any analysis that suggests a central role of the state—from President Thein Sein’s office down to local security units—in the waves of violence against Muslims.

Unable to read Burmese social media sites and other online forums, the journalists miss out on open-source Burmese-language materials such as the Facebook page of the President’s Office or Myawaddi News, the Defense Ministry’s main propaganda organ, where neo-Nazi messages and posts, official and unofficial, are disseminated.

Instead, international journalists go with their own pet narratives and paradigms. Consequently, they get their Burma stories horribly wrong, identifying trees but unable to see the forest that the trees make up. Thus the state-orchestrated anti-Muslim terror campaign degenerates into “communal violence,” and the man with no integrity becomes “a pursuer of peace” and a sincere reformer.

In short, the international mass media has proven itself incapable of connecting the dots in its coverage of Burma. The reading and viewing public of the rest of the world is thus ill-served by the humanity of foreign journalists who fail to see what is abundantly clear to most Burmese observers.

When reporting about Burma, it helps to be able to see the world through the eyes of sociopaths and psychopaths. From the ruling generals to certain elements of Burmese society, Burma has both in abundance. Without taking their mindset into account, one is bound to end up with half-baked analyses that don’t do justice to our attempts to understand the twisted world of Burmese politics.

Maung Zarni is a Burmese activist blogger ( and visiting fellow of Civil Society and Human Security Research at the London School of Economics.

14 Responses to The Dangers of Decency

  1. Thanks to Dr Zarni for such a forthright, no hole barred exposition of the ruling elite in Myanmar.. People do have different vales and preferences, and the weights they put and rank in thoughts and acting on are not the same.. As we Burmese say, ” myee thu ma pyu mi mi hmu'”. May I add in the real life world we have to live with ” sociopaths and psychopaths ” and are not fortunate enough to extricate ourselves from the environment and cultural traditions we come from , like the fortunate few. Thandaya pyauk ywei’, a hman bawa yauk naing kya bar zaye.

  2. Bravo – you said it, Dr. Zarni. I am amazed at the extremist nationalism that is coming out of Burma – written outside – by people like Bo Bo Kyaw Nyein – Never knew he had such ideas when we all met in Bali in 2004. Even the rhetoric is extreme – you are so right, Burmese have an innate embedded racism and “nationalism” – We should write a novel called The Ugly Burman. Like yesterday’s Burmese immigrants in California calling themselves “Shwe” i.e. The Golden People, while calling Hispanics “Pair” or Beans – !!!

  3. Well, Mg Zarni has said it well enough.
    But is he himself free from the indecency he has accused other people of?
    He says other people are all wrong, making the reader assume he was the only one right.
    And, presumably, he is not in Burma. How can he know what took place and how they did?
    How can he say things the way he says in this article, unbiased?
    I do not stand or speak for the sociopaths and psychopaths that he makes reference to.
    They were real, and are here to be gotten rid of. But . . .
    Why don’t you write in Burmese in Burmese papers? You do write Burmese, don’t you?
    Come on, Mg Zarni! Grow up, be proactive and responsible.

    • Maung Zarni, like many Burma-experts, doesn’t live in Burma.
      I am not a Burma-expert but a lower-class Burmese ex-pat, descended from illiterate peasants, who can still read Burmese, so I find it very amusing to look at personal Facebook pages of the upper-class Burmese, both inside and outside of Burma, especially the surprising social interconnections (friends of friends of friends etc.) amongst the “Burmese elite”. Psychopaths they are not quite, but the Burmese oligarchy does suffer from this sociopathic Chinese disease called “guanxi” (social web of connections based on patronage and nepotism). I wish some Western journalists who speak Burmese can decipher this mess and make a detailed graph or network depicting this social, political, economical “Burmese-Upper-Class-Web” for the world to see that it’s not a simple “rich racist Burmans” vs. “poor noble minorities”, “the good holy lady” vs “evil despotic generals”, “illegal dark-skinned immigrants from Bangladesh” vs “illegal lighter-skinned immigrants from China” etc. etc.
      Maybe I am becoming a Burmese psychopath LOL

      • Looks like you don’t get out a lot in Canada. What you called guanxi among Chinese is known as old boys club in western society. If you want to move up the professional or social ladder, you’d better become a part of such clubs or know someone who is already in it. Visit a country club if you ever get invited and witness the class system that puts indian’s caste system to shame.

        • You are making a comment about me as a person and not about the article. Who are you to give me a lecture about how I should live? You don’t know who I am, so don’t preach me cheap little tricks on “how to climb up the social ladder”. I don’t really care whether you work as a server in a country club or not. There is dignity in every individual human being. You don’t seem to understand that. That tells me more about you, someone trying hard to climb up the social ladder.
          Unlike most upper-class people, Chinese, Canadian or otherwise, I still have some moral and ethical principles. Unlike the greedy ambitious Chinese, I want to live a life with a clear conscience and not with a bag of money that I got by cheating. At my age, I don’t have to do what you have to do and I don’t need “guanxi”. I am happy to be a primitive Onge from the Andaman Islands, lower than any caste in India!

          • Oh my. it seems i touch on a nerve. Your clear conscience sounds more like personal vendetta against Chinese given that Burmen are all but declaring outright war on rohingya, a race you claimed to be a part of in another forum whilst sparing the Chinese.

            Speaking of commenting on your life, or lack there of, you’ve mentioned many times about your perceived academic career in Canada to lend credibility to your comments. As in any court of law or forums, if you bring in something as evidence, the thing becomes subject to cross examination, expert testimonity, and even criticism. It is up to the moderator to decide if I have crossed the line.

            You are one of the most notorious to completely ignore contents of an article while commenting not only in this forum but also in many other forums. Frankly, I am amazed at your fetish for the 20-year-old daughter of the Chinese president. The burmese saying “nwa oh Myat nuu kyite” is so true in your case. LOL.

  4. Zarni and Kyi May Khaung,

    Please tell me a place in the world or a country completely clean from racism? Do you guys understand the very fabric of the society which sow together entire population of the world? Do you guys know some statements such as “Survival of the fittest”, “Racial purity” and “National Socialism”? Zarni round up and calling name to all Burmese as racist and Neo Narzi for his quest for attention and popularity doesn’t make any impression on me. It is another typical Zarni garbage. If we can fix society by calling name and giving bad title, there never were wars in the history and there never will be war. Just call bad name and society will be fixed. The man such as Zarni is radical and he is dangerous to the society. What do you think how will those extremists will react to your article which you call them racists or Neo Narzi? Because of you calling them name and they will give up their point of view or they will react more extreme in the next event? If London school of Economy teaching only how to call name to the one you don’t like, some tiny schools at remote location of Burma can teach you better humanity which you loath them. People have rights to choose any words they like as long as they use it responsibably. British former PM Margret Thetcher passed away afew days ago and BBC news announcer said that she was the poodle of US instead of she was the bitch of the US, which would have create journalism wild fire. What is wrong with journalists use any title and words they see fits to the cricis of Burma? I welcome any fair and legitimate criticisms toward our society. If Burma is racist toward Muslim people or people with different looks and believes as Hitler did, how about some Muslims countries treat toward Jews and Americans? Isn’t it also is racism? Is it politically correct for the racism of Muslims people toward other people? It is bad enough that what has happened in Burma, you want to make it even worse by firing up more bad emotion. A smart man wrote in a book that “People learn from only 2 things”. Which are “Pain and Pleasure”. I wish Zarni understand more about human emotions. But, who am I to teach a person with Doctor degree?

    • Are you saying that if some muslim countries are treating other badly, then Burmese should also treat muslim people in Burma the same way? Is that your justification for the inhuman treatment of minority groups by your government?

  5. I am really sick and tired to see that the conflict between the Buddhist and Muslims in our country as the state sponsored or organized monks stirring the riots. Are you guys really know what is happening in Myanmar on the ground? The normally peaceful and quite Burmese of all ethnic are really sick and tired of the Muslims. Disrespecting our faith, marrying our girls by any means they can and converting them,showing off their strength whenever they come out from their prayer, eating and doing business only in 786 shops, breeding population like none others and sickest of all they are calling themselves Burmese Muslims. What a joke? Meikhtila is at the heart of Myanmar where the original Burmese reside. This is where the heart and soul of our culture live. These places around central Myanmar are the fortress of our identity. How dare these people dare to kill a monk? They must be really stupid or really underestimated the mentality of ordinary Burmese. It is very lucky for them that only forty something people got killed. If the situation was not contained by monks, it would have been much much worse. See through the events. 3 Burmese were beaten up by the Muslim gold shop owner and one monk was brutally tortured and killed. Am I missing something? Who has started the beating and killing? Let me tell you something. The riots was started by the ordinary Burmese because they and their faith were attacked by the Muslims. They need to defend themselves otherwise it will be worth nothing being a Burmese.
    Please go and see on the ground what is happening in the Burma? Don’t just judge from your computer desk in the foreign country and support your foreign lobbyist. In fact the ordinary Burmese people are more aware of the danger of Islamization now than before. Everybody knows that it is not too late for us to defend our culture and faith. Every Burmese know now that to defend our peaceful faith and culture we might resort to violence method if necessary. You can call us whatever you want. Extremist, terrorist, Nazi, Racist. But to defend ourselves we will do whatever we can. Otherwise our generation will suffer and our history will be doomed.

  6. Well, a doctorate is not all things in life.
    The commendable quality of man is maturity with a bit of wisdom, a balanced view, if you like.
    And that lack of a balanced view is what makes Mg Zarni a distinct academic, as distinct from other well learned intellectuals.

  7. According to Zarni, international journalists get their stories horribly wrong….horribly inadequate, downright incorrect, and the international mass media has proven itself incapable of connecting the dots in its coverage of Burma, partly because these journalists are unable to read Burmese social media sites and other forums, etc., etc. But how do we know that Burmese social media sites and other forums are not biased? Ko Zarni should fact check his findings and not rely solely on Burmese forums where people express their frustrations, opinions and spread rumors. I always read the news with a grain of salt. No one knows the whole truth. By the way, do you have any idea how to tame the sociopaths and psychopaths in Burma or have you given up hope and decide to remain in the UK indefinitely?

  8. In response to Andamanoge: What is “Onge”? I wish I could visit the Andaman Islands. Several years ago, I watched a PBS program about the Sea gypsies who live and roam among the islands of Andaman seas. Now, one needs a lot of money to visit these islands, especially “Tha-htay kyun” – rich man’s island.

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