It may not be overstating the case to say that finding an international correspondent who can properly report on Myanmar issues has become something of a Holy Grail these days.
In recent years, Western media coverage has rarely reflected what is going on in the Southeast Asian country of more than 54 million people. Rather than trying to understand the complexity of the nation, which is shaped by its ethnic diversity and toxic British colonial legacy, the press and so-called “Myanmar experts” in the West simplistically cast the country’s issues as all stemming from a “problem between the Bamar (Burman) Buddhist majority and ethnic minorities.” Such characterizations contribute nothing; they merely stoke ethno-nationalism in the country and promote bad press about Myanmar around the world.
Last week, they gave the world yet another false narrative about the country.
When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi led the incumbent National League for Democracy (NLD) to a landslide win in the general election on Nov. 8 and a second term in office, the victory unleashed a fresh frenzy against her in the Western media. They competed with one another to bemoan that optimism about the country’s democratic transition has faded. Many jumped on the bandwagon: one claimed the electoral outcome would rip the country apart, while another said the leader of the party for which people overwhelmingly voted was a jailer of critics and an apologist for the slaughter of minorities. One Western political analyst expressed alarm that the result could lead to a deeper division between ethnic minorities and the Burman Buddhist majority, and to further conflict.
All of these accounts do little more than insult the people of Myanmar and disrespect “the wish of the majority”.
Equipping themselves with surgical masks, face shields and gloves and risking their lives amid a raging COVID-19 epidemic, Myanmar voters flocked to polling stations to cast their votes for the parties they supported.
More than 27 million of the country’s 38 million eligible voters cast ballots. When the overwhelming majority of these voted for the NLD, they freely chose to do so. In other words, they let the world know through their votes that they were giving the party a mandate to continue democratic reforms in the country for another five years. What the Myanmar people choose should not be of concern to other people.
Furthermore, don’t be so naïve as to believe that the NLD’s victory was simply due to votes from the Burman Buddhist majority (another cliché) because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a Bamar. Those who mindlessly repeat the mantra of a “division between ethnic minorities and the Burman Buddhist majority” when assessing the problems Myanmar faces today should be disabused of this notion by the fact that the NLD won the lion’s share of votes in ethnic areas like Kachin, Karen and Chin states.
Rather than trying to examine the root causes of why people showered the NLD with their votes to an even greater extent this time than they did in the 1990 and 2015 elections, Western media and observers simply put it down to a kind of blind faith in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party. They offhandedly concluded that her “godlike” status in the country helped her win, while ridiculing and patronizing NLD voters for ignoring the government’s as-yet-unsuccessful attempts to amend the Constitution, take the military out of politics and improve the economy. If these “journalists” hadn’t been so lazy, they might have done some ground reporting and spent some time talking to ordinary people in Myanmar; if they had, their stories would have been closer to the truth. Please note that scrambling to the same handful of opposition sources to obtain soundbites such as, “Her leadership style is not in line with a democratic system,” or “She does not listen to the voice of the people,” won’t accurately capture the mood of voters. Why did people bother to vote for the NLD if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi wasn’t listening to them?
Its recent landslide victory notwithstanding, the NLD government has been criticized, even at home, for a number of missteps. The most recent was the cancellation by its appointed electoral body, the Union Election Commission, of voting in some ethnic areas over security concerns. However, the UEC said it would hold by-elections in those areas in the near future. People also complained of the arrest of some student protesters for their involvement in the anti-war movement in Rakhine State. Unsurprisingly, these issues were highlighted alongside the Rohingya’s disenfranchisement—they were left out of the vote as the majority of them have yet to be verified as Myanmar citizens—in the international coverage to justify the Western media’s claims about the government.
Instead of explaining why a majority of voters chose the NLD, the Western press simply gave the international audience the impression that Myanmar voters are naïve and blindly support their leader. As a result, their readership lost an opportunity to learn that the NLD won because Myanmar people have witnessed that the party and its leader’s sincerity toward the country are unshakable, in contrast to the corrupt and self-centered military regime and its affiliates, which Myanmar people knew for the better part of their lives until a few years ago.
Of course, they have also had firsthand experience of the NLD government’s shortcomings in recent years, but they also believe that the party will address them and move the country forward.
However, for the Western press, which is already prejudiced against Myanmar over the Rohingya issue, the reasons people voted for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD no longer seem to matter.
Associate Professor Eric Louw of the University of Queensland’s School of Communication and Art once said, “Once a prejudice (whether positive or negative) has rooted itself within a newsroom culture, that prejudice will (unconsciously) inform future newsmaking about that particular group of people.”
So, for Myanmar, fair press coverage is unlikely in the near future, as fairness seems to have long been kicked out of the Western media’s newsroom windows when it comes to covering the country.