Finding room for compassion in Myanmar’s toxic media space

Reporting on atrocity and conflict in Myanmar for the last two years has been a psychologically draining challenge for everyone in the Myanmar media space. The scale of human rights violations by the Myanmar military junta have been, in the terminology of international justice, both widespread and systematic. From the premeditated mass murder of over 170 people in Pa Zi Gyi in Sagaing Region’s Kanbalu Township just before Thingyan, to the Pinlaung massacre in March, the deadly assault on schoolchildren in Letyetkone in September of last year, and the mass incineration of civilians in Hpruso on Christmas Eve 2021—not to mention the wholesale destruction of Falam and Thantlang and countless other communities throughout Myanmar since the coup in February 2021—atrocity has become commonplace in uncommon times.

How has reporting on the widespread violence affected the Myanmar media sector? Broaden this out to consider activists and humanitarian supporters, and civilians seeking to survive the widespread conflict, all of whom consume the media and human rights reporting that is a vital source of information. So much is responsive and urgent, such is the kinetic scale of violence.

Read of the hardship and risk of so many journalists in the current edition of the Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship, especially over the imbalance of foreign support and the risks faced by media reporting inside Myanmar, or the voices of exiled reporters in the documentary filmmaker Ali Fowle’s contribution to the Columbia Journalism Review who “can find no separation between life and work.”

Over the past year, I have helped deliver a dozen workshops on journalistic analysis, conflict reporting and international accountability measures. Over 140 Myanmar reporters joined in total, with the majority publishing a series of powerful analytical articles on a range of subjects. Invariably, Myanmar journalists are outraged by the mass atrocities and suffering they must report on, and struggle with ways to maintain impartiality.

Myanmar journalists are seen between protesters and police during a rally held on February 9, 2021, to protest the military takeover the week before (Photo by Theint Mon Soe/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Many media workers since the coup, both Myanmar and foreigners working for or contributing to Myanmar outlets, have been pursuing a form of “journalism of attachment,” a phrase coined by Martin Bell during the war in Bosnia in the 1990s, and meant to evoke an inevitable partisanship in what would normally be an independent and impartial approach to reporting the facts. This could be otherwise termed, similar to emerging perspectives on humanitarian neutrality, “resistance journalism” or “solidarity journalism.” It is possible to despise the military and work for its downfall while holding onto professional ethics and approaches to reporting on asymmetric conflict, especially when one side in a multi-sided war is the greatest perpetrator of crimes and a national-level authoritarian regime with no shred of legitimacy. This doesn’t preclude reporting on abuses by the revolutionary side or its leadership failings, corruption, and dubious analytical preconceptions.

The most obvious approach is to redouble efforts at supporting the Myanmar media and human rights groups, and to seek more intertwined collaborations between them. Already professional sectors with great diversity between national- and local-level organisations, proven track records of three decades, and highly respected reporters and researchers, they don’t need much more than financial support. That initial Western post-coup funding is drying up, or being hoarded by donor favourites—those media support entrepreneurs driven by “burn-rate” expenditure of available funds to secure the “next round” of USAID projects. This largesse, seemingly so generous on paper, is a bare sprinkle at a lower level inside Myanmar, where journalists and researchers face the greatest risk.

But such support must also come with increased skill sets training in technological challenges, not just on operational security but also the ever-present danger of misreporting, fake news and misinformation. If reporting on the Anya Region, where so much fighting and so many atrocities take place, is so challenging, then a redoubled effort to ensure credible reporting and information flows must be prioritized. This must be supplemented with living wages for those inside Myanmar and in exile. Finally, and most importantly in many respects, is prioritizing psychosocial support for journalists and human rights workers. The mental toll of reporting on conflict is immense, especially for those exposed to daily reports and footage of atrocity.

How can the media find ways to continue its embattled duty and still inject greater compassion into conflict reporting, commentary, activism and advocacy? There are a number of steps to consider, both for Myanmar actors and for many foreigners in the milieu in various ways.

The first is to reconsider the sharing of explicit photographs, especially of the dead and other casualties of armed conflict. Reporting on war unavoidably involves portraying its victims. But there is a difference between highlighting the human toll of war and sharing photos of civilians or combatants that strip them of their dignity. The rights of families and other survivors must be considered before photos of their loved one’s deaths are used in news stories or shared on social media. If the idea is to jolt the international community out of its indifference, it is important to understand that horrific photos won’t achieve this goal: the world is inured to images of death in far-away places. Spreading photos of people killed in gruesome ways only fuels desperation, especially when it has such little positive effect. We must also consider what prolonged periods of looking at graphic photos does to our own sense of stability.

Invasive use of testimony, often with photos, is another element to be avoided. The international media and human rights researchers should be ashamed of their actions towards survivors of sexual violence in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, some of whom have been interviewed dozens of times. This is an established pattern of exploitation of women’s experience in war. When the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) released its landmark 2002 report License to Rape, many foreigners wanted direct access to survivors to interview them, either for their own reporting or for verification.

Second, the resistance must also be more forthcoming about its own breaches of the laws of war and more committed to pursuing transparent investigations and punishment of transgressors. Failure to do so works against the promotion and protection of human rights. It provides sadists with a cover for their inhuman actions and undermines the claims of the resistance that it is waging a just war. It also breeds resentment when communities see armed actors on “their side” get away with abuses against their own people. Communities in long-standing conflict zones often suffer greatly from taxation, forced labour, and other rights abuses by armed groups. Cover-ups and double standards only serve to weaken transitional justice initiatives in the long term. The National Unity Government (NUG) has been responsive to these issues, and many resistance groups privately admit abuses by their own forces. But more must be done to address abusive behaviour among anti-regime groups, even if it is glaringly obvious that the greatest abuser of rights in the country is, by far, the Myanmar army.

Third is the politicisation of international justice initiatives. Increasingly, the NUG is appealing to the international community on human rights grounds and calling for accountability. Yet there is an obvious paradox in this approach. If the world has essentially forsaken Myanmar, what role can the International Criminal Court (ICC) or the Independent Investigative Mechanism on Myanmar (IIMM) do to stop violence now? They may be able to secure future justice and accountability, but that’s no salve for people being bombed now. It is comparable to trusting in diplomatic efforts such as ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus: it simply hasn’t worked. It also politicises and instrumentalises suffering in often, but not always, unintentional ways.

BBC correspondent Aung Thura and Mizzima reporter Than Htike Aung occupy the space between police and protesters during a demonstration in Naypyitaw on February 8, 2021. Like many other journalists since the coup, they were both later arrested. (EPA-EFE/STRINGER)

At a panel discussion on Myanmar’s conflict held at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok last November, Ben Strick of Myanmar Witness discussed the steps to documenting atrocity crimes in lamentably flippant fashion: “I like to call this a little cooking class. We hand the cake over to justice and accountability mechanisms. We hand the recipe over to them,… we hand the ingredients over.… They can read the recipe, follow it, and make their own cake.”

This is deeply insensitive language. Documenting atrocity crimes against people who have been murdered, tortured and assaulted is not like “baking a cake,” and describing destroyed human lives as “ingredients” in a “recipe” for justice and accountability is utterly offensive. Also, international accountability measures don’t work this way. Courts and investigative mechanisms conduct their own investigations because the evidentiary threshold for prosecution of international crimes is supremely high.

The facts speak for themselves. The atrocities that have been committed are clear. The abuses of the laws of war and international humanitarian law are evident and don’t require any embellishment. Manipulating the facts for greater impact may endanger admissibility of key evidence.

Fourth, reflect on the use of conflict data and the perils of transforming civilian and combatant deaths into dehumanising metrics and mapping exercises. Atrocity documentation and human rights reporting isn’t a competition to compile incident data. Charting massacres doesn’t actually tell you much about the direction of kinetic conflict. Worse, the conclusions drawn from much of available data are mostly just inferences tied to an agenda of victory that has not been vindicated thus far. And yet so many international and Myanmar media and NGOs persist in portraying the limited facts at their disposal in this light.

One of the more egregious examples of this tendency to use highly distorted data to present a picture of resistance progress and diminishing military operational strength is the “Effective Control” report produced by the Special Advisory Council-Myanmar (SAC-M) in September of last year. The maps contained in that report—which purports to show dramatic territorial gains by the resistance at the expense of the military—are regarded by many with some skepticism.

The speculations of Thomas Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, are similarly far removed from reality. In a report published in January, Andrews was on solid ground when he described the junta as “illegal and illegitimate,” but in far shoddier territory with his vague and truth-torturing maps.

Even the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), which often produces admirably solid conflict-area reporting and human rights documentation, recently released maps that made similar claims about the Myanmar military’s supposedly diminishing “area of control,” but which were so generalized and hazy in their methodology as to be merely ornamental analysis.

All three are exercises in aspirational political geography. They imply that the more territory the NUG can claim to control, the greater its de facto legitimacy, which in turn bolsters its calls for de jure legitimacy and international recognition. This is cartographic determinism that doesn’t correspond to real spaces on the ground.

More importantly, such overblown claims of “control” could also be seen as imperilling local populations, by exposing them to potential military reprisals. Does staking revolutionary “administrative control” over a territory invite atrocity air strikes? How do the “maps of victory” compare to the spaces of suffering? To be clear, the war criminals here are those who deploy air power to murder civilians; but it is important to ask if the efforts of the resistance to claim dubious gains for the sake of its own legitimacy haven’t also put civilians in harm’s way.

This point can also be made by looking at another map, from the United Nations Children’s Fund, showing the number of civilian landmine casualties in Myanmar in the first three months of this year. The total number of incidents reported during this period is 77% of the figure for all of last year. And most, notably, occurred in areas regarded as resistance strongholds. This is, surely, nothing to boast about.

Consider also the map of airstrikes carried out by the regime so far this year, produced by Nyan Lynn Thit Analytica. Then look at the maps of arson attacks and buildings destroyed over the past two years, produced by Data for Myanmar. Both make the claims of “effective control” much harder to take seriously. They also make these claims, made against the backdrop of such widespread violence, appear chillingly callous.

Lastly, efforts must be made to tone down the misguided triumphalism on display on social media, especially from the self-appointed acolytes of the NUG and its ethnic allies. Platforms such as Twitter often reveal the worst narcissistic and deceptive tendencies of their users, especially those whose profligacy in posting is usually in inverse proportion to their intellect, insight and originality. Propounding on the crisis in Myanmar from safe locations around the world, and using the currency of atrocity to fuel fantasies of imminent victory, is morally obscene. Feeding on outrage and peddling in propaganda that devalues human suffering does nothing to bring the nightmare in Myanmar any closer to an end.

Highlighting junta atrocities and projecting qualities on the resistance to satisfy the imagined criteria for global support is a pointless exercise. Few in Myanmar still expect international intervention to save them from the depredations of the military. “Victory in one year,” as some foreign “advisors” promised more than a year ago, is also not on the cards. Seeing the regime’s escalating use of violence as a sign of weakness is a delusion; what it signifies is merely a total disregard for human life. While the military has been significantly weakened, it still has teeth, and its eventual defeat cannot be taken for granted.

The challenges that lie ahead are daunting. As Milton once wrote, “Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to the light.” Victory may well be assured, even if it is uncertain how or when it will be achieved. To get there, those of us who are witnesses—whether as media practitioners, human rights researchers, or simply consumers of news—must take care to ensure that we are not contributing to the immiseration of Myanmar’s people—or, for that matter, to our own misery. Compassion, and an honest appraisal of the realities of war, must prevail if the country is ever to be liberated from its cycle of violence. For the journey to that triumph will determine the character of the peace.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, humanitarian and human rights issues on Myanmar.  The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Myanmar Now’s editorial stance.

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