State Media Comes under Fire for Stoking Sectarian Anger

By Aung Thet Wine 5 June 2012

Around 15 to 20 Muslim protesters gathered in front of a mosque near Rangoon’s Sule Pagoda on Tuesday to condemn anti-Muslim violence in Arakan State and to demand an apology from state-run media for stoking sectarian passions by using an offensive racial epithet.

The protesters, who took to the streets following two incidents on Sunday that left 10 people dead in Taunggok and a dozen injured in Sittwe, called on the government to use “rule of law” to end the recent cycle of violence in the northwestern state bordering Bangladesh.

In addition to an investigation into the two attacks on Sunday, the protesters demanded that the government take legal action in the case of an ethnic Arakanese woman who was raped and murdered last month, allegedly by three Muslim men.

That incident, which provoked widespread outrage among the predominantly Buddhist Arakanese majority, has heightened tensions with minority Muslims in the state, sparking this latest outbreak of communal unrest.

On Monday, state television warned against “anarchic” activities in the wake of Sunday’s violence.

At today’s protest, however, it was the state-run media that came in for criticism for using the term “kalar” to refer to Muslims. The word is generally used as a derogatory term for foreigners, especially those of Indian descent.

The protesters were not the only ones who took offense at the use of the word in Burmese-language reports by the Kyemon and Myanmar Ahlin newspapers, which are both government mouthpieces.

Mya Aye, a leading member of the 88 Generation Students group who went to the protest to urge the demonstrators not to fall into the “trap” of sectarian conflict, said he also condemned the state media’s description of Burmese Muslims as “Muslim kalar.”

“I don’t accept the use of that term,” he said. “We are all citizens of the same country. U Razak is one of our country’s martyrs. Do we call him ‘kalar Razak’?”

U Razak was a Muslim member of independence leader Aung San’s pre-independence interim government. He was one of six cabinet ministers who died alongside Aung San when he was gunned down by a political rival on July 19, 1947, half a year before the end of British colonial rule.

Other senior political figures also strongly condemned the use of the term.

“The newspapers should not stoke this conflict. Are they trying to suggest that one race is more violent than others?” said ethnic Arakanese leader Dr Aye Maung, an Upper House MP from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party.

Win Tin, a veteran journalist and a senior member of Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, said the state media was unnecessarily stirring up a “controversy” by using a term it knew would create a backlash.

“We want stability in Arakan State. We don’t want racial or religious controversy. The authorities should not use a term that could inflame the controversy,” he said.

Irrawaddy reporter Khin Oo Thar contributed to this report.