In Myanmar, journalists have sided with the military against the Rohingya

Two Muslim women pass a huge portrait of Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi displayed on a building construction site overlooking Mahabandoola park in Yangon on February 12. (Photo: Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)

In the darkest days of Myanmar’s military junta, journalist Aung Hla Tun was a hero. He reported for Reuters in 2007 from Yangon, the country’s largest city, as troops flooded the streets to stamp out an uprising led by Buddhist monks against the dictatorship, which would come to be known as the Saffron Revolution. He filed stories through the chaos, as soldiers gunned down protestors and one Japanese photographer, earning his agency’s Journalist of the Year Award. As news of the military’s brutality swept around the world, the regime responded with denial, and state media accused foreign news outlets of publishing a “skyful of lies.”

More than a decade later, Myanmar’s military again faces global condemnation as a new crisis engulfs the country. Its soldiers stand accused of raping and murdering Rohingya Muslim civilians in western Rakhine state. The military describes the campaign as “clearance operations” in response to attacks in late August by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a militant group it calls terrorists. But the UN says the military may have committed genocide, and the NGO Doctors Without Borders estimates at least 6,700 Rohingya were slaughtered within the first month of the violence, which sent almost 700,000 fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. State media has responded with the same tactics it used 10 years earlier, by accusing journalists of “fabrications” and branding one AP reporter an evil soul.”

ICYMI: “When a journalist dies, such questions, while on everyone’s mind, are often asked in a whisper.”

But this time, Aung Hla Tun is safe from the ire of government propagandists, because he’s now one of them. In January, he became Myanmar’s deputy information minister, making him second in command at the ministry that oversees state media. (Editor’s note: In Myanmar there are no first names and surnames; names serve as one unit.)

His reasoning for the move, he says, is that he believes he can counteract the damage the Rohingya crisis has done to Myanmar’s reputation—he argues, in fact, that it’s the responsibility of all local media to do so. “Our image has been badly tarnished due to the lack of a proper Myanmar narrative,” he tells CJR.

The new deputy minister is among a number of well-respected media figures who built careers defying the junta but who are now, to varying degrees, echoing the military’s position on the Rohingya.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

This is by no means the first time Myanmar’s leaders have attempted to muzzle the press and control the narrative during a major crisis. But it may well be the first time senior journalists have jumped to the government’s defense and joined in with attacks against international media.

Myanmar has become increasingly perilous for journalists reporting on abuses against the Rohingya. In December, Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested while investigating the killings of 10 Rohingya men who were buried in a mass grave in Rakhine. They face up to 14 years in prison, under an archaic law dating back to British colonial rule that makes it illegal to “obtain” documents that could harm the “safety or interests of the State.” In this case, the journalists were handed such documents by the police, and then promptly arrested.

Journalists in Myanmar can incite anger simply by using the word Rohingya, which many in the country consider a sham ethnic name for a group of imposters from Bangladesh. This is most keenly felt in Rakhine, where the majority of Rohingya lived before the August crackdown. The mostly Buddhist ethnic group, which shares the state’s name, feels it is at the forefront of a cultural war that could see Myanmar turned into an Islamic country. They, along with the military and many others in the country, refer to the Rohingya as Bengalis to assert their view that the group are interlopers. (The Rohingya were, in fact, citizens until the early 1980s, when the government began stripping them of their legal status.)

Since 2010, Myanmar has undergone a dizzying political transition. The junta has relinquished some power to a mostly civilian administration, while retaining authority in key sectors such as immigration, the judiciary, and the police. The impact on the media has been remarkable: Before the shift, local press had to submit material to a censorship board prior to publication for approval; now they have been free of that restraint for more than five years. Foreign journalists, meanwhile, who previously had to pose as tourists to visit Myanmar, have since made their homes in the country.

The biggest showpiece of the reform process was the 2015 victory of Aung San Suu Kyi—a dissident under house arrest during the 2007 uprising—in the country’s freest vote in decades. When her party, the National League for Democracy, took power in 2016, many journalists were hopeful the Nobel Peace laureate would make good on her commitment to media freedom. As recently as 2014 she had called for “a free press to check those who are in power” during a speech for the East-West Center in Yangon.

ICYMI: Twitter users were shocked by a word Trump used in a Saturday tweet

But Aung San Suu Kyi is now accused of betraying that promise and siding with the military against the media, especially since 2016, when her office lashed out at the press in response to news reports of mass sexual violence against Rohingya women, branding the reports “Fake Rape.”

This has fuelled a perception in Myanmar that outsiders, especially foreign media and NGOs, have spread false accounts of military atrocities while ignoring the crimes of Rohingya “terrorists.” Now, the military enjoys unprecedented support as supposed protectors of national sovereignty, while the reputation of the foreign press has plummeted. Readers in Myanmar resent that while the Rohingya’s suffering has received a torrent of coverage, few reports have detailed the impact of the violence on other ethnic groups living in Rakhine.

Aung Hla Tun, who is ethnically Rakhine, began seething at the international press while he was still at Reuters in 2012, when communal riots in Rakhine state drew attention to the plight of the Rohingya.

His views on the unrest presented such a problem for his colleagues that he was sent to Singapore for more than a week, according to Paul Mooney, who was the agency’s bureau chief in Myanmar between 2014 and 2015 and has now left the company.

It wasn’t just Aung Hla Tun’s views on the Rohingya that caused problems. He also objected to his colleagues’ approach to covering sectarian unrest between Buddhists and Muslims more generally, Mooney tells CJR.

When riots broke out in Mandalay in 2014, Mooney says, he asked Aung Hla Tun to call the city’s police to confirm reports of a Buddhist mob descending on a Muslim-owned teashop. But Aung Hla Tun instead insisted on calling officials in the capital city of Naypyitaw, who denied there was any trouble.

Then he refused to translate a press release from Mandalay police, Mooney says, and instead asserted that it just confirmed what his Naypyitaw sources had told him. In fact, the statement said police had fired rubber bullets to disperse rock-throwing rioters.

The next morning, Mooney asked for help confirming a tip that several imams had been arrested at a Mandalay mosque. “I said, ‘please call the police in Mandalay…not Naypyitaw, they won’t know’” Mooney recalls. “And in like a half hour he calls me back and says, ‘er, yeah, I called up Naypyitaw, they said no arrests had been made.’”

Mooney, who had traveled to Mandalay and left Aung Hla Tun in Yangon, went to the mosque and the local police station and confirmed the arrests himself. He was now convinced his colleague was trying to sabotage Reuters’s coverage of the violence because he was biased against Muslims, a charge Aung Hla Tun denies.

Later, in emails to Mooney, the reporter gave his views on well-known anti-Muslim monk Wirathu, who is based in Mandalay and was accused of fueling tensions ahead of the riots.

“Some Muslims couldn’t hate Wirathu more,” he wrote. “They have been trying to ruin his image by various kinds of fabrications, some keep sending hate and threat messages to him.”

He added: “I’ll not advocate for him or tarnish his image without any concrete evidence. I don’t like anyone spreading hatred.”

Without elaborating on his views of the monk, Aung Hla Tun tells CJR that Mooney had only spent a year at the Yangon bureau and was not the best person to discuss the reporter’s 22-year career there.

“He didn’t know, and, frankly speaking, didn’t try to know enough about the complexity of the underlying causes of some major issues in our country,” Aung Hla Tun says. “But he often tried to patronize me and I never let him do it. So we didn’t get on well. Frankly, I just can’t afford the time to answer questions concerning him.”

Aung Hla Tun has a new boss now. Information Minister Pe Myint, an acclaimed writer and former newspaper editor, who joined Aung San Suu Kyi’s cabinet in 2016 promising to work for press freedom.

Since that promise, the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper has repeatedly attacked foreign media on his watch and published “terrorist” lists that showed the names and faces of Rohingya children and were condemned by rights advocates for putting lives at risk. The paper has also run an op-ed decrying “detestable human fleas,” in what was seen as a reference to the minority.

It is not clear how much say Pe Myint actually has, or chooses to exert, over what goes in state media. Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership is notoriously top-down and rigid, and the ministry is opaque. But in a meeting with staff from Global New Light shortly after the NLD took office in 2016, a foreign subeditor named Alec Wilmot asked Pe Myint about the newspaper’s policy on using the word Rohingya.

Wilmot, who has since left the newspaper, tells CJR that the minister responded: “If you were a chimpanzee, and an orangutan came up to you and said, ‘I am also a chimpanzee,’ but you could see that it was an orangutan, what would you do?” (Disclosure: Wilmot is a friend of the author of this article.) The Ministry of Information did not respond to requests for comment directed to Pe Myint.

The gulf in opinion on how to cover the Rohingya has caused tensions at some of Myanmar’s most well-known publications. More than 20 foreign staff resigned or were fired from the Myanmar Times after a journalist there was sacked for reporting on rape allegations by Rohingya women in late 2016. And last year, the paper’s then-editor, Kavi Chongkittavorn, had a foul-mouthed bust-up with his deputy editor, Myo Lwin, who had published an anti-Rohingya op-ed without Kavi’s knowledge. The op-ed claimed that terrorists had “control of the media” and had fooled the international community into seeing the “villains as victims.” Kavi, who had taken the job after the infighting in 2016, hoping to repair the paper’s reputation, was furious. He called an editorial meeting and began berating his deputy, banging his fists against the table and yelling obscenities, staff members who witnessed the encounter tell CJR, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Irrawaddy, an outlet that has bravely defied the junta for decades, has also suffered a blow to its reputation over its stance on the Rohingya crisis; at one point, senior editors insisted on a newsroom policy of referring to the group as “self-identifying Rohingya.” Three of its foreign journalists resigned late last year in response.

While the faultline for disagreements is often between foreign and Myanmar journalists, plenty of Myanmar reporters reject the official line on the Rohingya, exposing themselves to far greater risks than their foreign colleagues.

Aung Hla Tun has not been a vocal ally for Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone, the jailed Reuters reporters. When US diplomat Bill Richardson called for their release in January, the deputy minister accused him of contempt of court and urged others to “not put pressure” on the authorities, even though a global campaign for their release supported by local journalists was already well underway.

And he was among those who attacked Esther Htusan, a Pulitzer-winning AP reporter, when she made a transcription error that led to a report stating Aung San Suu Kyi had blamed terrorism on illegal immigration. Without offering evidence, Aung Hla Tun told The Irrawaddy that the error was a deliberate attempt to tarnish Aung San Suu Kyi’s image “and that of our country.”

Not long after, the Global New Light of Myanmar called Htusan an “evil soul” and  nationalists harangued her on Facebook. One Aung San Suu Kyi supporter with more than 300,000 followers posted a death threat, along with Htusan’s picture. Fearing for her safety, Htusan has left Myanmar for Thailand. She declined to talk with CJR.

Contempt for the Rohingya, and the journalists reporting on their suffering, runs so high in Myanmar that Aung Hla Tun’s stance is, relatively speaking, one of the more moderate on the crisis. Despite all the criticism leveled at him, he views himself as tolerant. After he spoke to The Irrawaddy about Htusan’s story, his former boss, Paul Mooney, posted an angry retort on Facebook. In response, Aung Hla Tun sent Mooney a private message.

“I’m not a racist as you’re trying to picture me,” he wrote. “As I always said, I have a number of Muslim friends.”

ICYMI: “People have problems with my stories every day, but not all of them chase me down a highway because of it.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Joshua Carroll is a freelance reporter based in Myanmar. Follow him on Twitter @jershcarroll.