Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The dangers of echoing propaganda on Burma’s ‘terrorist threat’

By Francis Wade Jun 15, 2015
Anti-Rohingya protesters rally in Yangon last month. Pic: Michele Penna.
A key task of any political journalist is to chip away at the propaganda of the powerful. The ability to pierce myths, to dissect and repudiate misinformation and strategic fear-mongering, is what separates good, independent journalists from those that are either lazy or captured by powerful interests. How journalists set about structuring and writing articles also helps determine the impact of their work—with the average reader rarely making it past the first few paragraphs of an article, whatever appears in the opening section is absolutely essential in setting up the tone and angle to what follows. The journalist should also know that every paragraph (and headline) must be written with the knowledge that those engaged in the art of propagandizing can cherry pick from the published piece and use the content to help spin whatever scenario or version of reality they are trying to construct.

In light of that, a recent piece in the Independent newspaper entitled “Burma’s ‘great terror’ moves a step closer as Taliban urges Rohingya to ‘take up the sword’” falls at the first hurdle. The headline makes the implicit assumption that because of a Taliban statement, Burma’s Rohingya population will inevitably become terrorists. There is however no causal mechanism in a statement urging a population to “take up the sword” and the subsequent violent radicalization of the population in question, yet the headline depicts the two as intimately connected. One could just dismiss this as the work of a lazy editor pushing for clicks, were it not for the fact that this headline, if read inside Burma, will no doubt soon make its way onto any one of a number of online platforms—Ban Islam from Myanmar,Rohingya Scam, Islam Virus—that feed off exactly this sort of fear-generating material, and will pick out and isolate content that helps them to pursue an explicitly anti-Muslim/Rohingya agenda.

The opening paragraph then repeats and expands on the headline, warning of the potential for it to become “a reality”, before the third paragraph explains how the “great terror” that ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks speak of “could prove self-fulfilling”. While the piece then goes on to discuss the contradictory nature of violence in the name of Buddhism, and to condemn the spate of anti-Rohingya protests by Buddhists, at no point does it return to disentangle the assumption that the journalist himself made—that a Taliban statement makes violent radicalisation that much more inevitable. Terrorist groups are savvy in their recruitment methods, and use statements such as this not because they think it will automatically attract newcomers, but instead to whip up fear and galvanise governments or populations into further persecuting and marginalising the target in the hope that this will drive them into their arms. A journalist shouldn’t assist with that project.

These sorts of articles that lazily equate aggrieved Muslim populations with terrorism appear all the time. For sure there is a relationship, albeit complex, between persecution and political violence—few terrorism scholars would argue otherwise—but it certainly isn’t inevitable, and shouldn’t be assumed as such. Taken individually, articles like this account for little, but together they add significant weight to an alarmist and unrestrained discourse surrounding Islam and terrorism that is used time and again across the globe for strategic purposes—whether to justify the rise of security states, to limit immigration, to launch foreign wars, or in Burma’s case, to goad attacks on a Muslim minority. For the latter, this has already had additional impacts, with journalists recently discovering that at least a dozen Muslims in Burma had been arrested on charges of belonging to a terrorist group—the “Myanmar Muslim Army”—whose actual existence has been doubted by security experts and lawyers.

This discourse then helps to drive the kind of treatment that the Rohingya are fleeing in droves from. Speak to your average ultra-nationalist Rakhine who agitates against granting rights to Rohingya, and they will tell you that Rohingya—whom they speak of as one entity, a key strategy used to drive mass killing—are either rapists or terrorists; listen to a sermon by the likes of monk U Wirathu, and he will explain why pre-emptive action is needed. The key problem then with an article like this is that it coincides with efforts to legitimate violence by elements within the state and the local Rakhine society towards Rohingya, at a time when what is needed more than anything is to destigmatise their identity, to methodically counter the propaganda of ultra-nationalists, and to make explicit that to be Rohingya isn’t to be something nefarious—whether a rapist, terrorist or anything else—but is instead to require compassion and protection in the face of possible elimination.