Guest Column

With Ukraine in the Limelight, Spotlight on Myanmar Fades

By Jayanta Kalita 11 March 2022

Nations across the globe have unequivocally condemned Russia’s military action against Ukraine. The Western bloc led by the US has imposed the heaviest possible sanctions in order to cripple Moscow economically and isolate it globally.

But the same solidarity is missing when it comes to Myanmar, which is reeling under a protracted civil war. Does it indicate an inherent Western bias against Asia as an impoverished region that can be dealt with just by paying academic lip service to democracy and development?

The role of the UN is far from satisfactory. For the UN is supposed to ensure that the rule of law, fundamental to international peace and security and political stability, prevails not just on one continent but across regions. The sense of urgency it showed in the Ukraine crisis is quite missing in the case of the Southeast Asian nation.

On Feb. 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military generals ousted a democratically elected government, triggering countrywide protests and civil disobedience. Since then, junta forces have launched a brutal campaign to suppress pro-democracy voices, killing more than 1,600 people and arresting over 9,500, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a monitoring group.

Long before common citizens in Ukraine took up arms to defend their land against the invading Russian troops, Myanmar’s ousted government formed what is known as the People’s Defense Force (PDF) comprising hundreds of civilian resistance groups across the country to fight a marauding military. All this has led to a civil war that is unlikely to end anytime soon.

But the question is, why has the UN not been proactive in tackling the Myanmar crisis? Louis Charbonneau, the United Nations director at Human Rights Watch, said, “Calls for the Security Council to hold a public meeting to discuss the violence since last year’s coup have gone unheeded, as has a campaign by dozens of organizations urging the council to impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar and targeted sanctions on the junta leaders and military companies.”

He also noted that while the US, the UK and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Myanmar, “none has presented a draft resolution for the Security Council to negotiate,” probably fearing a Chinese and Russian veto.

“But a veto threat hasn’t stopped them before. Russia, usually backed by China, has vetoed 16 resolutions regarding Syria’s armed conflict since 2011. The US and EU persistence has sent a strong message that the international community is determined to hold parties to the conflict accountable for serious abuses,” according to Charbonneau.

Western media bias?

The Russia-Ukraine war, the largest conventional military assault on a European nation since World War II, is being widely covered by Western liberal media. Reports and editorials condemning Russian action against its neighbor, however, raise some pertinent questions about bias and impartiality in media coverage. For instance, the Arab and Middle-Eastern Journalists Association, has accused Western leaders and media of using discriminatory language, based on race and religion while discussing the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

Arguments about integrity, impartiality, freedom of expression and human rights “are only used when it serves in their interests, and this was evident in the Western media’s coverage of refugees from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, and how different it is to the coverage of refugees from Ukraine,” Jordanian journalist Khaled Qudah says.

This is a valid observation as conflicts in many parts of Asia do not get adequate coverage in the Western media. One can see a difference in the coverage of Ukraine and Myanmar. Visuals of gun-toting Ukrainian young women and elderly people as well as those fleeing to Europe as a result of the war dominate the digital space. But similar images of Myanmar’s civil resistance, internal displacement and refugees have not made it to much of the global media.

Even a Ukrainian journalist has called out Western reporters for what she calls their “racist” narrative. “I am utterly appalled at some individuals who dare to call themselves reporters referring to refugees from the Middle East as ‘uncivilized’ as opposed to Ukrainians who are fleeing. Anyone who supports this narrative is a racist bigot, and deserves colossal shame,” tweeted Anastasiia Lapatina from the Kyiv Independent.

How Asian countries react

Asian countries are sharply divided in their response to the Ukraine crisis. For instance, India, China and Pakistan have tacitly supported Russia by abstaining from voting on a key UN General Assembly resolution condemning Moscow’s aggression. While India faces a two-front military threat from China and Pakistan, each of these countries maintains a close relationship with Russia.

Countries such as Japan and South Korea, on the other hand, voted in favor of the resolution. Tokyo has also sent bulletproof vests and helmets to Ukraine, apart from other nonlethal items, including tents, winter clothing, emergency food items, hygiene products, cameras and power generators, according to Kyodo News.

Apart from that, India’s position has once again highlighted its ambiguity in international relations. With Moscow being the largest defense supplier for India—around 65 percent of its military hardware is of Russian origin—New Delhi, naturally, cannot abandon Russia. At the same time, India is getting closer to the US and the two strategic partners, along with Japan and Australia, are part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) to corner China in the Indo-Pacific.

India faces a similar dilemma while dealing with Myanmar, as it refrained from condemning the military generals for the coup but has called for the restoration of democracy in the neighboring country.

Additionally, Russia is accused of supplying weapons to the Myanmar junta, thereby indirectly contributing to the mass murders being committed in the Southeast Asian country.

That said, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has exposed numerous geopolitical fault lines. It also underscores inherent biases of the Western media toward Asia and the inadequacy of their coverage of the region.

Jayanta Kalita is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi. He writes on issues relating to India’s northeast and its immediate neighborhood. The views expressed are his own.

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