Much of my work is dedicated to an exploration of how political events, people and nations are portrayed in the media. It feels natural for me to write as often as I do about Pakistan. Her position to Britain and the world is of strategic, military and nuclear importance. Her media is free and yet simultaneously oppressed and manipulated. The foreign media tends to report on all that’s bad about Pakistan with just a fluttering of articles by individuals who have made it through the negative curtain. For many news channels, the narrative on Pakistan is the same: a hopeless, violent country in decline. Intrigue gripped me this week as I came across a country that appears to have the Pakistan narrative in reverse – and it’s just as dangerous.
Burma, or “Myanmar” as the Burmese would like democracy activist, Aung San Suu Kyi, to call it, is a country I have never visited, nor do I have any Burmese friends. My perceptions of the nation are almost wholly formed by what I read in the news and, as it turns out, by social networks. Over the past few weeks, my Twitter and Facebook contacts have been brimming over with the situation facing the Rohingya people in Burma, and attached to emails I have seen images of the dead that I never wanted to see. I did what many might do when presented with wild claims of mass murder – I searched news channels online to check what was going on. Despite everything I have ever written about Jean Baudrillard, I found myself thinking, “Well, if this dreadful news is true, it will be in the mainstream media”.
A few weeks earlier, I had been visiting the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, taking a group of Russian students on a tour. “And in this very room, we were recently delighted to welcome, Aung San Suu Kyi”, a British diplomat told us. I remembered the massive public diplomacy campaign around the Nobel Prize winner’s release that the British government had invested in during my time working there. Huge images of Aung San Suu Kyi had been projected onto the EU Parliament building. I also remembered that the remarkable lady had been on a world tour of late – thanking the “West” for their support during the time of her imprisonment. “The West”, meanwhile, has been busy taking credit for the success story that is Burma – and there is a reason for them to invest in the good news.
“Clinton’s Milestone Meeting” shouted a headline on BBC News. We are treated to a grinning photo of the US Secretary of State and a story of her meeting with Burma's President Thein Sein. The meeting was about business and the welcome news that the US had lifted trade sanctions. Even Coca-Cola attended.
This BBC piece made a mention of the treatment of the Rohingyas at least, as did the news item, “Canada announces embassy in Burma amid rush for country's oil, natural resources” – but the narrative behind the headlines and lead stories was clear. Press Freedom is another issue which, if you read the papers, appears to have been re-born in Burma. But if you dig a little deeper than “More press freedom for Burma's media” and the subtitle “Promising Period” you will see perhaps less of an overnight success. As one editor put it, "Before, we couldn't write about anything – political prisoners or human rights. Now we simply write what we want, and then the censors can decide what to cut out." Hmmm…not exactly freedom of the press.
As Aung Sang Suu Kyi is paraded through the western world, nobody seems to really care what she has to say; for example about waiting for transparency until investing in state-run oil and gas companies. The world is delighted that she is out of prison, that Burma is emerging into our notions of what democracy is, that its media is free. Now we can all make some money.
The Myanmar riots really have come at a bad time. And now the mainstream news channels are beginning to carry headlines (The New York Times was the first I found), any good news on Burma will be forced to carry the caveat of murder. Depending on what news you look at, the situation is described as ethnic cleansing, communal riots, or secular murder. The calls for a UN investigation may not strike fear into the hearts of the perpetrators, but at least after a deathly sad period there is an acknowledgement of a problem.