Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Problems for Rohingya to get worse before they improve

I have a friend who is from Myanmar although she's not living in that country at the moment. A doctor, she is currently animated by the issue of the minority Rohingya for whom Myanmar has been home since time immemorial. In fact "animated" might be inadequate to describe the level of agitation that the problem inspires in her, and I think that there are many Myanmar nationals who find themselves in the same situation. Even Aung Sang Suu Kyi can't escape the problem; in a video my friend provided a link to, ASSK - as she is known widely - blamed porous borders and refused to blame the Myanmar government for the persecution of this minority even though the government has a terrible record with many of its minorities, which it persecutes throughout the country using the military.

("Burma", the former name for the country in question, is actually an appellation only adequate for describing one of the ethnic groups in the country, the largest. Because of this fact the word "Myanmar" - which means "quick" - is actually a more accurate appellation for the entire nation of 80 million people.)

For Australians the issue of the Rohingya is also a cause for animation because a number of southeast Asian nations where boats full of Rohingya refugees have been trying to land have started turning the boats back out to sea. The reason why this policy is animating for Australians is because turning boats back has been a policy of the Australian government - which was elected in September 2013 - among a range of policies designed to stop boat arrivals of refugees. It's hardly surprising that southeast Asian politicians have taken this leaf out of the book of the Australian government because its range of refugee policies have, indeed, stopped the boats arriving. During the recent UK election those same policies were held up as models by some contenders for office during the pre-poll debates. It probably doesn't need to be emphasised that the people in the UK who admire the Australian government's policies are politically on the right of the ideological spectrum (as is the current Australian government).

So here we have scenes of emaciated, desperate, dark-skinned refugees in boats holding up their children for the media's cameras to capture images of. The one good thing about this scenario is that the media are there to see what is going on. In Myanmar's western province of Rakhine, where the Rohingya live, there are no western media to observe what is happening on a daily basis. And so people like ASSK can with impunity spin the same line about "stateless Rohingya" as the Myanmar government and nobody in the US or Australia or wherever bats an eye. We just take it for granted, for how could ASSK lie? It's impossible. Or is it ...

While the problem can improve if there is more media scrutiny - as it can only also improve in Indonesia's Papuan provinces, where recently it was announced the international media would be allowed to operate - the foreign media has to be allowed and in fact assisted to operate so that its reporting can be unbiased. There must be no coercion. There must be no members of the security services following the foreign media around. The media must be allowed to operate on its own terms, and talk to anyone it wants to talk to. Ideally there should also be security support so that the media can operate unmolested by any of the performers on the ground in Myanmar.

I suggested that more media scrutiny was needed on a comment thread on social media but one of my Myanmarese friend's friends vehemently disagreed saying that the media cannot be trusted. But I think the real problem is that people don't like it when the media says things they personally don't agree with. Sometimes the truth hurts, as the saying goes.

[UPDATE 22 May 2015:] Last night on the ABC they said that the Rohingya had been in Myanmar "since the 19th century" when they were brought to the country (then known as Burma) by British colonisers. However tonight on the ABC on the 7pm News program they said that the Rohingya had been in Myanmar "for 1000 years", contradicting what they had said only the night before. I think there is definitely a need for someone in the media to do a bit of legwork and find someone who can be relied on - probably it will be someone working in academia - to provide an accurate and definitive pronouncement on what is undoubtedly a key element of the entire refugee debate.

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