How is Coverage of Rakhine Affecting Myanmar’s Image?

By The Irrawaddy 18 September 2017

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! It has been three weeks since violence broke out in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw. But, conflicts continue on the ground. We’ll discuss to what extent the home ministry has been able get the situation under control, to what extent the situation on the ground can impact on Myanmar’s image on the international stage, and how political opportunists are instigating instability elsewhere in the country. Ethnic affairs analyst Ko Maung Maung Soe and journalist Ko Thiha who has recently covered developments in Rakhine State join me to discuss this. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Ko Thiha, you have just come back from a government-guided [press] tour in Rakhine State. What did you see on the ground, because we’ve seen fake photos. How is the administration there?

Thiha: Alel Than Kyaw village, whose police station was attacked [on August 25], was hit hardest. We were there. We were also in Muslim villages which were destroyed by fire. We were also in ethnic Arakanese villages. We saw big flocks of unattended poultry and cattle wandering around in abandoned villages, mostly Muslim villages. We saw damaged bazaars in Muslim villages. We have been to villages and bazaars where Muslim and ethnic Arakanese people live and sell together. Some shops were burnt and some were just damaged, and goods remained intact in there. We also saw looters. The administrative officials and security forces should give protection for those places which have experienced conflicts and from where people have fled. Otherwise, crimes can happen afterwards. We saw arson attacks every day on our trip. Though we were not at the scenes of fire in person, we could see flames. There were also reciprocal accusations. And they will not stop if security personnel are not guarding those places. It is difficult to say who is responsible.

KZM: You mean for arson attacks?

Thiha: Circumstances allow anyone to loot belongings, household appliances and cattle and poultry left behind by those who fled conflicts. So, it is also possible for anyone to carry out arson attacks. If security forces are guarding, I think there might not be arson attacks in abandoned villages. It would be difficult for anyone to carry out arson attacks if there are systematic security arrangements.

KZM: You mean security and administrative agencies don’t and can’t give protection to those villages to prevent arson attacks?

Thiha: Yes, and to prevent looting and theft as well. There should be more systematic arrangements. Again, there are villages where militants were hiding. I heard that they return to those villages secretly at night. If security forces guard those villages, they will be able to arrest militants. So, there is a need to take better care of those villages.

KZM: U Maung Maung Soe, what have you heard from those areas? Administration has collapsed in those areas as Ko Thiha has pointed out. We’ve seen various news reports on the issue. Foreign news agencies claimed that it is Arakanese people who set fire to villages, and there were also reports of Muslim people torching villages. What measures should be taken to put things under control there?

MMS: My view is at the same time [the government] is responding to the attacks of ARSA [Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army]…. some normality has been restored now. Almost all the ethnic people have fled from their homes—their population is just about 30,000, and more than 26,000 have fled. The [number of] Bengali people who have fled to the other side [Bangladesh] is reported to have increased from 100,000 to 300,000.

KZM: The figure is around 300,000 now.

[Editor’s Note: The self-identifying Rohingya Muslim community in Rakhine is referred to by many in Myanmar as “Bengali.” Additionally, UN figures have increased since this interview, and now suggest that about 400,000 have fled to Bangladesh as of Sept. 15]

MMS: Figures are changing. Under such circumstances, besides responding to ARSA for security, [the government] must firstly have a plan to stabilize the region.

KZM: As quickly as possible?

MMS: Yes. What is required right now is to form a committee to stabilize Maungdaw, before implementing recommendations of Kofi Annan’s commission on the Bengali issue. That committee must be formed with government officials, and Tatmadaw and police who are responsible for security as well as local ethnic people and Bengali people.  That committee should survey the number of ethnic and Bengali villages, and put them under administrative control, and provide assistance and protection for them. This is the first thing to do. Another thing is the belongings of the people who have fled from their homes should be safeguarded as Ko Thiha has said. There will be cattle and personal valuables left behind. There should be a committee to take responsibility to keep them safe with the help of security forces. The possible controversy over ownership of those things is not the problem now. The government must first handle the chaotic conditions; otherwise there will be looters and opportunists exploiting the situation. So, there must be a committee tasked with this. At the same time, the government must survey the population of Bengalis in the region. And they must be put under the government’s jurisdiction. The government must also provide help to them. There is an urgent need to form a committee to do these [tasks].

KZM: We haven’t seen such steps from the government so far, have we?

Thiha: Yes, we didn’t see it in our tour.

KZM: About the arson attacks, there are people who asked someone to deliberately set fire to houses and took and spread pictures. The woman in Muslim clothes in those pictures was found to be a Hindu woman, and the pictures were made up. The government said it would take action against such actions. What did you see and hear about such things?

Thiha: We received those pictures during our tour. At first, we believed in those pictures. The people who gave those pictures to us told us as if they took those pictures themselves. But later we thought that we needed to verify those pictures and should not release them immediately. Then, those pictures spread on internet, and it was pointed out that they were fabricated photos. After ARSA attacked 30 police outposts, including the one in Alel Than Kyaw village [on August 25], we have seen propagandist pieces in international [media] with fabricated news reports and pictures [saying] that counter military operations had killed many innocent civilians and Muslims. Their propaganda was so strong that the attack of ARSA was even covered up. As they [ARSA] attack on the ground [in Rakhine State], they also try to win the attention and sympathy of the international community by spreading fake reports through international media and social media.

KZM: One of the most noticeable examples is the deputy Turkish prime minister spreading propaganda with fake photos, and Myanmar’s government responded to it.

Thiha: Yes, it is. So, there might be people in Rakhine who thought of countering fake with fake. This is how I see the fabricated photos [of the Myanmar side]. [Myanmar] is not as good as them at fabricating. So, it was easily exposed. In the cases of killings and arson attacks on the ground, responses may vary depending on walks of life, social standards and attitude. I think the [fabricated] photos [of Muslim torching their houses] are acts of some people who responded to wrong with the other side of wrong.

KZM: Myanmar’s image has been badly marred in the international community in connection with this issue. According to the UN, around 300,000 have fled to the other side. This has received international coverage. But there are also fabricated reports at the same time. So how do you think we—especially the government—should respond to these [reports]?

MMS: Firstly, they should respond with practical actions, for example, forming a stability committee to stabilize and assert administrative control in Maungdaw. Secondly, I think it would be best to allow media unfettered access into the area. The more the media is restricted, the deeper international trust will decline. Our country is used to state-run newspapers, the old propaganda pieces such as ‘BBC and VOA Airing Skyful of Lies’ don’t work now. If ARSA really did terrorist acts, we must give the media access into the area. We must show the international community what they are doing. This is the best response for us. This is the problem in Maungdaw, and it is important not to drag it to other parts of the country. Since the first week of September, it has been portrayed as racial or religious issue and hate speech was spread. There were rumors that there would be attacks on September 11. Buddhists claimed that Islam would do jihad, and Islamic jihadists claimed that Buddhists would demolish Islamic mosques. We need to find out and take actions against those who spread such rumors. We have cyber police who can do this. Actions must be taken against them. Anyway, the case that happened in Taungdwingyi can be called a terrorist act.

KZM: Do you think there are opportunists who manipulate the Maungdaw case for their political gains? Was the Taungdwingyi case organized or was it just accidental?

MMS: There are two parts. Some young people with extreme religious and racial views may be involved, and political opportunists maybe also involved. No matter who does such things—either political opportunists or those with radical views—under the current circumstances, one thing is sure—the image of our country will be tarnished by this.

KZM: Such acts are not acceptable.

MMS: Yes. Another thing is instigating violence elsewhere in the country will not help solve the problem. In the case of the problem in southern Thailand, they don’t bring the problem to Bangkok. The problem happened a long time ago, and has yet to be resolved. But they don’t bring that problem to Bangkok. But in our case we are bringing the Maungdaw problem to Yangon and Mandalay. We should only focus on how to correctly solve the Maungdaw problem in Maungdaw. Another thing is that not only the image of the government is marred by the conflicts as some people think; the image of the Myanmar society will also be marred, and so is the image of Buddhism.

KZM: The image of the whole country will be marred.

MMS: Again, the image of those who are responsible for security will also be marred. They need to be consciously aware of this.

KZM: Ko Thiha, the government is taking actions, yet some actions are not satisfactory. The Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP] and other civil society organizations [CSOs] have held discussions on the Rakhine issue. Recently, USDP had a discussion, attended by its chairman. What did you hear from them about their responses?

Thiha: Partly because it is an ex-ruling party, and partly because it is the opposition now, it seems that they are opposing any action of the government—not just supporting the good actions and criticizing the bad ones. Whenever chances arise, they always try to portray the civilian government as unqualified, incapable, and not understanding administration. Under current circumstances, official political parties should have righteousness and restraint with their criticism of the government, considering the interests of the country.

KZM: Ko Maung Maung Soe, what is your assessment of it? It concerns the whole country though it is happening in Maungdaw. It can impact the political image of the whole country. What is your assessment of the stances of various institutions: the government, political parties and Tatmadaw on this issue?

MMS: My view is USDP should cooperate with NLD to solve this. It should not blame it. Because the problem broke out in 2012 and went on for around four years under the USDP government before the power transfer in 2016. Those people stayed in refugee camps for over four years. It has only been more than one year since the NLD government has tried to solve this problem. The problem exploded after five years. I didn’t see any concrete steps taken by the USDP government to solve the problem during its term. I’m not casting blame one-sidedly. The USDP government worked on the peace process and formulated the NCA [nationwide ceasefire agreement] and the NLD government is now working on that path. But the USDP government did nothing about the Rakhine issue. So, the NLD government does not have any plan in hand to continue. It has to start a new one. The USDP should cooperate with the NLD government because it did nothing about the Rakhine issue while it was in power and also because the case has gotten international attention.

KZM: Thank you for your contribution.