Renewed violence in Rakhine State has displaced thousands and international media may be making things worse

Photo Credit: Adam Jones/Flickr

New clashes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State have displaced 5,000 people and the military has begun a “crackdown” on militants. But international media outlets are getting it wrong.


In the past month, renewed violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State has displaced around 5,000 people. Clashes between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Tatmadaw came to a head on January 4, when the government reported that hundreds of ethnic Rakhine militants attacked four police outposts near the border of Bangladesh.

The AA is an ethnic armed group that was founded in 2009 and is calling for autonomy and self-determination for ethnic Rakhine people.

But as international media picked up the story, they often referred to the AA as “Buddhist” rebels, playing up the religious elements of a conflict that is primarily political and ethnic.

This language runs the risk of obscuring the economic factors at play in the Rakhine conflict and the exploitation and repression of minorities by the central government.

With Rakhine groups left out of the new ceasefire, tensions are rising

In the January 4 attack, the militants killed at least 13 police officers and, after Tatmadaw reinforcements arrived, at least three members of the AA were killed. The AA also kidnapped 14 police officers and nine civilians, though the armed group later released them, citing the importance of complying with international law.

The Red Cross, other civil society groups and the host communities are providing assistance to the displaced, though the Myanmar military is now reportedly blocking aid shipments, including food.

The AA is also collecting evidence of alleged human rights abuses by the Tatmadaw, including arbitrary arrests, the use of human shields in combat and the targeting of civilians. However, the political and ethnic aspects of the renewed violence make it even more challenging to secure the rights of the more than 725,000 displaced Rohingya.

Domestic and international media are also reporting that the AA’s new offensive is a retaliatory move after the Myanmar military left them out of a four-month ceasefire declared in December. After the Myanmar military announced the ceasefire, the Northern Alliance of ethnic armed groups said they would refuse to adhere to the terms unless the ceasefire included groups in Rakhine.

Short-sighted reporting by international media may be fuelling the conflict

Reuters initially reported the January 4 attacks under the headline “Rakhine Buddhist rebels kill 13 in independence day attack on Myanmar police posts.” But after facing public criticism for identifying the ethnic Arakanese rebels by their religion, Reuters removed the word “Buddhist” from the headline. The news agency edited the article to add that, “The Arakan Army does not cite religion as a factor in its insurgency.”

The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and Al Jazeera also published stories referring to the Rakhine armed groups as Buddhist rebels, but they didn’t face nearly as much public backlash. This is probably due to Reuters’ high profile in Myanmar following the arrest and conviction of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

The focus on the religion of the AA suggests a dangerous equivalency between the two. The long-running conflict between the Tatmadaw and the AA has more in common with the wars in Shan, Karen and Kachin States – an ethnic armed group calling for self-determination and invoking a history of injustices committed by the ethnic Burmese central government. Framing the conflict in religious terms obscures the nature of the conflict and the underlying grievances fuelling the AA.

When Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won the 2015 elections, they installed their own chief minister in Rakhine, rather than a leader from the Arakan National Party, which had won the majority of elections inside Rakhine.

The Reuters story emphasized that the AA is fighting on behalf of the “Buddhist ethnic Rakhine minority,” when the conflict has more to do with their political marginalisation and lack of representation than their Buddhism.

The Rakhine conflict was also conceived in a climate of extreme economic marginalisation. The poverty rate in Rakhine is around 78%, far higher than the national rate of 37.5%. In the north of Rakhine State, 60% of households are landless.

Large-scale development projects in Rakhine have rarely benefited local communities, especially in the case of oil and gas resources in areas like Kyawkpyuh, where a Special Economic Zone is currently being developed by Chinese company CITIC. Profits from these projects in Rakhine are funnelled to the central government and foreign firms, creating a feeling among local communities that they’re being exploited.

The international media’s misstep may only worsen the AA’s feeling that it is not being heard. Unlike the Rohingya armed groups, the AA claims to speak for a demographic that includes the majority in Rakhine State. Though the Tatmadaw may wish otherwise, there’s little chance of “cleansing” Rakhine of the AA and their supporters.

The Rakhine are also citizens and officially recognized as an ethnic group by the central government, whereas the Rohingya are denied all of the above. The AA is also not a new group. They were founded in 2009 in Kachin State. It’s not the media’s role to determine which groups face the greatest hardship, but to report in a way that builds an accurate understanding.

National publication The Irrawaddy and ethnic affairs analysts have called for the international media to carefully consider the consequences of how they report on conflicts in Rakhine and across Myanmar, pointing out that their choice of words can exacerbate disputes and raise tensions.

As many outlets picked up the Reuters story under its original title, the article still stands in The New York Times and other publications. The undue focus on the religious side of the conflict isn’t limited to international coverage – Asia-Pacific media outlet The Diplomat has done the same in the past. Few of the outlets mention that the Tatmadaw is also almost entirely Buddhist.

Reporting on “Buddhist insurgents” also runs the risk of suggesting that a large portion of Buddhists in the area are violent rebels, a generalization that dehumanizes all groups in the area. Herewithin lies a conflict journalist’s challenge – to report events in a way that their audience understands, but at the same time call on the audience to see the subjects as people and not labels.

Local voices hold the key to both the media’s coverage and bringing the conflict to an end. The AA and the Tatmadaw have made it clear that they value political and military control above the needs of civilians in Rakhine. If either group hopes to maintain stability and legitimacy in the eyes of local communities in Rakhine, they must implement a ceasefire, allow the displaced to return home and allow aid workers and shipments in the area. They must put local voices at the centre of any conflict resolution process – just as the media must to provide accurate and fair coverage of the sitaution.

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