New Media Project: An analysis of media portrayal of unrest in Myanmar

Posted on December 12, 2013 by


Connor Medvec

Beth Hansen

Callie Johnson

Alex Fredrickson

New Media Project:

An analysis of media portrayal of unrest in Myanmar


     Since March of 2013, Muslims in central and eastern Burma have been persecuted heavily and struck out against in very violent ways by Buddhists. The Muslim minority in Myanmar is being targeted in an anti-Muslim attitude that has begun to pose threats to the country’s economic and political reforms after a century of military rule. It is believed that the violence is due in part to frustration from years of authoritarianism that it is now being directed towards Muslims. The Anti-Indian and Anti-Muslim groups are rooted in the history of the country and it’s demographics. Nationalism is also a key factor in the hatred toward the minority groups. In the last year, numerous violent events across Myanmar have left over 240 people dead. Most of the people who have died are Muslims. In August, mobs burned homes and businesses in Kanbalu because of rumors of an assault going through the city. Some people worry that if the violence can’t be calmed down and gotten under control, the country could fall under widespread violence as well as crimes against humanity or even possible genocide. In some cities, even the police and other law enforcement officers are just standing by and watching the violence continue without intervening.

     The anti-Muslim feelings and attitudes aren’t a new trend. The group has been experiencing discrimination for years. The Rohingya Muslims are among one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. They have been restricted in education, marriage, reproduction, and property ownership, forced labor, and even sexual abuse by the state army. The deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division says that the violence we are seeing now is the result of a buildup of tension and neglect that was bound to burst at some point. The violence is characterized by mobs of Buddhists targeting small groups of Muslims or even individuals. There has been violent public murders as well as hundreds, if not thousands of homes and businesses burned to the ground.

     It is important for the media to address this topic because it is a recurring theme in our history. Hundreds of minority groups have been discriminated against in the world. African Americans, Irish, the homeless, and more recently gays and lesbians have been the victims of violent and hateful crimes. It’s the media’s job to take all the information and broadcast the news stories to the public who don’t have a hand in the matter so that they are informed on the subject. It would be difficult to know how to deal with violence and discrimination like this if each scenario is treated like it was the first to ever occur. It’s necessary to use history to make assumptions on how to treat and avoid more of these events from taking place in the future. Knowledge of these subjects also helps in understanding the reasoning behind the violence if it isn’t immediately clear. An easier analysis of the situation is possible if there is previous history to draw inferences from.

     For the most part, the authors of the articles regarding the violence in Burma don’t present very much of the deep history behind the entire situation. They usually submit a brief statement regarding the immediate reasoning- discrimination of Muslims by nationalistic Buddhists. This is only a fraction of the history that these two groups of people share. Their cohabitation of the area has been occurring for potentially centuries with minor issues until more recently. By leaving out a detailed history of the situation, authors are able to focus on what is happening in the country right at that moment. The immediate violence and what has recently happened is much more appealing to readers than a history lesson leading up to the contemporary details. This makes the violence seem a bit more unreasonable, not that it is reasonable at all. It sort of makes the violence seem less warranted and almost for recreation rather than nationalism or even just religious discrimination.

     The religions themselves are not really represented in any of the articles. For the most part, it is simply said that the violence is between Buddhists and Muslims, never really giving a reason for the dispute, just that the Buddhists are carrying the feeling of nationalism and don’t want the Muslims in their area. Clearly, there is a reason the two religions are so distinct and separated that one group would resort to lynchings and burning down homes to keep the other out of their ‘territory’. The reason for the violence would be much more clear if the real differences between the two groups of people were addressed and analyzed.

     The issues that the reporters and authors focus on are centered around the actual events that have occurred. They go into detail about the violence and what happened, how it happened, and who was responsible and who the victims were, but the reporting ends there for the most part. They don’t do too much analysis of the situation, except for discussing what political leaders and other people who are ‘in charge’ or are higher in social status think about the situation. In some cases they compare it to previous violent outbreaks or discuss what may happen in the future, but not much else than that. We believe a large part of the reason for this coverage is because the violence is really what people want to know about. They are shocked by the severity of it and want to know the story. They don’t necessarily care very much about the background or politics of the issue as much.

     We think that for the most part, these authors presented the information in the best way that they could. There is probably a variety of reasons for the violence. Nationalism itself is a huge issue, including racism, superiority, as well as simply just discrimination. The issues goes back hundreds of years to when Muslims and Buddhists first lived in the same areas and recognized the differences in the two groups of people and what their beliefs are. Breaking apart and analyzing the situation to pinpoint a single cause for the discrimination would require extensive research and insight into the events, and in reality this is ultimately going to be impossible. It is too deep and complicated of an issue regarding racism and discrimination for it to be completely broken down and analyzed. The authors are simply that-authors. Many don’t have any actual knowledge and background of the issues they’re reporting on other than the research they’ve done to write the article. Some who are specialized reporters may have a solid knowledge of the subject, but for the most part reporters and news article writers just write on the current news, not necessarily pertaining to a certain topic that is of their expertise.

Regional Media Differences

     When examining how the media reports on this event, one can see several differences in how various media sources from differing regions of the world present information. Words, phrases, and themes presented often differ in different parts of the world. Where western media may use one phrase to describe what is happening, middle eastern or asian media may use a different phrase or word it in such a way as to stress a different aspect of the issue or add a different connotation. For this analysis, western media will mean America and England or more specifically ABC News, the Huffington Post, and the BBC, as these represent the general opinion of western media and a good example of what other media outlets also focus on; the middle east will be represented by articles in Al Jazeera; and Asian media will be analyzed through articles in the Asia Times, Asia One, and Burma International.

These are the main articles that have been examined in depth and as a whole are good representations of how other articles from the various regions depict what has been happening in Myanmar.

Myanmar Buddhist On Muslim Violence Is Government’s Fault, Says Physicians For Human Rights

Bill Clinton: Violence in Myanmar Sickens World

Are invisible forces orchestrating Myanmar’s anti-Muslim violence?

No place for Islam? Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar

Violence and responsibility in Myanmar

Violence shakes western Myanmar as president visits

Burma News International

     While it is true that certain authors and articles will vary greatly and it is impossible to put all western, asian, and middle eastern media outlets into the same category or say that they all express the same ideas, this analysis speaks on the average opinion and themes presented. They are not an exact depiction of every media source from the various regions, rather an idea of what is most often expressed. These are not facts of what the media presents or a suggestion that there is any motive behind differing ways of presenting the issue, simply an observation on trends seen.

     One of the major differences in how different media outlets describe the situation is the way in which the various sources present the political situation in Myanmar. There has been political change going on in the region recently, and the way in which this is seen differs depending on who is looking. The west sees Myanmar as an emerging democracy and emphasizes that it is already  a democratic, free-ward moving state. In middle eastern news outlets Myanmar is more often referred to as moving toward democratic rule, as in it is not already democratic like the west likes to depict. Middle eastern news agencies also use phrases more often such as “hopeful talk of democracy,” saying that democracy is only an option being discussed rather than the decided solution. Asian news sources differ in general from how the west and middle east present the political situation in Myanmar. Asian news sources most strongly refer to “political transition,” and “reform,” to describe the current situation. These news outlets more often than not do not include specific details of what the transition includes, rather simply stating that change is happening.

     Another way in which these different regional media outlets differ is in the way continuation of the situation has been represented. Western and middle eastern news agencies have both put an emphasis on the failure of the government to recognize and offer a solution to the violence. Some phrases used in western media include the government has “been silent,” and “failed to stop” what has been happening. Middle eastern news agencies have given similar criticism, commenting on the “ineptness at confronting” the problem and commented on the lack of acknowledgement. Where these two regions have commented much more often on the government’s response to what is happening, Asian news sources have put more emphasis on the reason why the issue is not ending on its own. Talk on the “unrest” in the area and individuals unhappiness as well as “sectarian violence” is more common.

     The ways in which deaths have been classified also differ by media outlet. Western and middle eastern news sources and articles have gone as far as using the term genocide to refer to what is currently happening in Myanmar. Asian articles on the subject stay away from this word and instead put more emphasis on words like murder and slaughter. Much more often, asian news sources speak about how individuals, also groups but more often individuals, have been murdered and slaughtered by others. They speak on the death in a way that makes it seem much more intimate and personal, as in a one on one experience.  Western news sources comment on the “potential genocide” that could come from the current situation while middle eastern sources have already applied this term to what is happening.

     How various groups of people are represented also differs with media source. The two major groups in this situation in Myanmar are the muslims and buddhists. The words used to describe these groups, as well as the frequency with which they are described, varies in different regional news sources. For example, middle eastern news agencies prefer to focus on the suffering of the muslim victims. Phrases like “stemming growth of muslim population” and “anti-muslim historical precedent” are more abundant in these sources. Asian news sources do put focus on the wrongs done to muslims, however they also add comments such as the number and recurring attention to “muslim grievances”. In addition to speaking on the wrongs done to muslims, asian news sources also speak on the opposite interactions. Much more attention is given to buddhist conditions and the denial of their rights being ignored. Although all media sources do put emphasis on the fact that these groups of buddhists who are causing violence are not the norm, and they only represent a small faction of buddhists, asian sources much more often than others mention what in fact proper buddhism says pertaining to an avoidance of violence.

Words and phrases common in the media:

Western Media

Middle Eastern Media

Asian Media

emerging democracy


military rule

failed to stop

not sweeping the country yet

potential genocide

moves toward democratic rule

ineptness of confronting

finally acknowledges


outside forces?


religious dominance

muslim populations

leaps, suggestions, rumors

military rule


political transition, reform

violence, unrest, tension, murder

western dismissal of threat

demonizing of buddhism

muslim grievances

condition and rights ignored

solving the problem



Similar cases of Discrimination and Violence

     When looking at the history of discrimination in Asia, we see how bad it really is/was through articles like “JAPANESE ONLY,” refusing entry to all foreigners. In this article we see how Japan secluded all foreigners from using their bathhouses, because Russian sailors were not following the proper bath house rules. Now even though it was just the Russian sailors in particular not following the bath house rules, every foreigner lost their privileges in the bathhouse. Foreigners complained for years about this, but the Japanese government didn’t have any laws against discrimination and considered it too early to legislate against it. So they couldn’t do anything about it. Since at the time the government wasn’t doing anything to stop this discrimination, more and more businesses around town including bars, restaurants, ramen shacks, even barber and sports shops, put up their own “Japanese Only” signs. And so it spread town to town. After this happened for so long several multinational families tried to get into the bathhouse and they only let in one of them, because they believed she looked Japanese but was really Chinese. They confronted the manager and asked why they let her in when she was really Chinese, but then they kicked her out as well. After all this racial discrimination the man in the article decided to become a citizen, and after he got his citizenship he went back to the boathouse to yet again be turned down even though he was truly a Japanese citizen, this time the manager said “even if you have citizenship, you still don’t look Japanese. Our customers will misunderstand. Goodbye.” After all this he decides to take them to court for racial discrimination at the epicenter of Japan, and he sues them for ¥1 million (close to $10,000), as its actions not only constituted racial discrimination, but also “transcended the boundaries of socially-acceptable rational discrimination.” In this particular case, he won.

JAPANESE ONLY: The Otaru Hotspring Case and Discrimination Against “Foreigners” in Japan


Nidhi and Dharmendra

     In today’s media, in South Asia it is expressing that violence is acceptable and clan, caste, and religious violence has become a norm. In south Asia on September 18th of this year, Nidhi Barak (20), was killed by her family for being in a relationship with Dharmendra Barak (23). They lived in Haryana State and were part of the same village. While Nidhi was lynched, Dharmendra had his bones broken, was then beheaded, and then they threw his body in front of his house. At their funerals, there was not a single one mourning for them. These young adults were part of the same clan, and the reason they were killed was because the parents could not be ok with their relationship because it violated accepted norms of behavior in their culture. Nidhi’s father said he would do it again if he had to when asked and Dharmendra’s family did not respond. In the article it asks the question, what kind of thought process would lead you to participation in killing your daughter? And it just comes back to the low levels of intolerance in south Asia today, causing religious violence. Religious violence appears endemic in modern India, and there are high levels of violence elsewhere in the country and the entire South Asia region. Violence of all kinds spreading from all kinds of sources is still acceptable in South Asia. In this kind of atmosphere such tolerance and support for violent actions. It’s also very disappointing that young couples like Nidhi and Dharmendra have had to pay for their relationship with death, because of the old ways of there culture. Where violence enjoys the sanction of family and society, the police and administration tend not to pursue cases seriously. Arrests will be made, but evidence may not be collected with intent to ensure conviction.

Violence is acceptable in South Asia


Violence against Religious Minorities

     Violence against religious minorities continues in several countries in Asia. The violence against the Rohingyas in Burma/Myanmar in recent months shows the complexity of the situation that brings out this kind of violence against particular groups of people. There are many different communities involved in these violent acts against the religious minorities, and the people who use violence against them.

Below is a list of the 2007-2011 data gathered by the Setara Institute show that violations of the events and actions led to the violation of the right of freedom of religion and belief in India.

     The highest amount of violence against freedom of religions and beliefs, has occurred in the West Java Province, and the second highest amount in line is East Java Province. In both these provinces they have had a consistent amount of violence over the past three years according to the grid. West java is the most densely populated province in the country, and thus believed to have the highest level of diversity in a variety of ways including religious beliefs. The high rate of violations of right to freedom of religion and belief in West Java shows high levels of intolerance within India. The acts of violence have been directed at different communities including those of the Buddhists, Ahmadiyyas, and Christians. The highest number of victims to this violence are the Christians, and Ahmadiyyas.

     There are many other groups that have suffered violations along with a significant number of individual victims. The violent acts committed consisted of killings, acts of torture, sporadic physical attacks, and destruction of places of worship, residences and other properties. They have also threatened the victims with the violent attacks, disallowed religious activities, and did other discriminatory and intolerant acts. The 2012 report lists the direct acts committed by state actors including the prohibition of establishment of places of worship, forcing beliefs on people, dispersing groups discussing religious matters, stopping religious activities, investigation of allegations of religious desecrations, and prosecution of allegations of religious desecration cases.

     Below is incidents of attack against minorities have occurred in several provinces in Pakistan, namely, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, Balochistan, Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and Punjab between November 2011- December 2012

     Members of Shia, Ahmadiyya and Sufi communities along with Christian, Hindu, Sikh and other communities have been killed, maimed and displaced by various forms of extremist actions.


Headline and Image Analysis:

     Now we will look more in depth at specific articles and how they present the situation that is happening in Myanmar. This will demonstrate the specific ways with which the media is communicating the story through article headlines and images.

Headline: Buddhist mob attacks Muslims in Western Burma; 2 Killed

Headline: Myanmar Riots: Media is Ignoring Anti-Muslim Violence in Southeast Asia

Analysis: These two sources depict Buddhists as relentless attackers. These articles highlight the fact that Buddhist rioters murdered innocent people. As I was doing research, I realized there was a surplus of articles that conveyed Buddhists as inhuman murderers. Due to the amount of media coverage, audiences are persuaded to think the worst of Buddhists in Burma.

Headline: Western Diplomats Visit Sectarian-Torn Myanmar

(Aid Agencies Say They Have Been Blocked From Delivering Relief Supplies)



Analysis: The picture reads that “Muslims gather at a camp for internally-displaced people in Myebon, where humanitarian agencies say they have been threatened and intimidated by Buddhist extremists for helping these communities.” Considering both the Headline and the depiction of this source, it becomes apparent that the source concludes that Muslims are being victimized. This victimization of muslims are apparent in the picture. The picture shows a group of muslims that have been displaced to an area with little resources and minimal food, shelter and clothing provided. This picture evokes certain feelings such as sympathy for the Muslims in Burma, and discontentment towards the situation.

Headline: Why are Buddhist monks attacking Muslims?



Analysis: The title of this article yet again depicts Muslims as victims of this conflict in Burma. The title specifically uses the word “attack” to insinuate that Muslims have no way of defending themselves against Buddhists. On the other hand, the images depict buddhists as nonviolent. In the first image, the buddhists are simply peacefully protesting and voicing their opinions on Muslims through a sign that reads “ The world is not only for muslims”. In fact, this sign insinuates that Muslims are being intolerant of Buddhist beliefs. In the other image, there are several buddhists in a meditative state. This image creates a generalization of Buddhists as very peaceful.


Headline: Myanmar frees 69 political prisoners


Analysis: This picture reads that “A political prisoner walks out of a prison after his release in Kalay, in Myanmar’s northern Sagaing division on October 8, 2013. Myanmar began freeing dozens of its remaining detained activists after the country vowed to release all prisoners of conscience by the end of the year.” This article portrays the conflict as not only a religious conflict, but a political conflict as well.  It is representative of  the political outrage that is fueling the fire for the religious violence in Burma.


Headline: Blood and Gold: Inside Burma’s Hidden War


Analysis: Al jazeera is a middle eastern news source. This headline depicts the conflict between Muslims and Buddhists as a private issue that is ignored within Burma. However, this conflict is a very public issue that is broadcasted in the media often. The article also insinuates that the conflict is causing a lot of bloodshed. The picture represents the amount of bloodshed that has been occurring through images of guns and soldiers. This image also highlights the fact that this conflict is both a religious and political conflict.

Headline: ‘The face of Buddhist Terror’


Analysis: This news source depicts America as being oblivious to the conflict going on in Burma. It focuses on the censorship of America’s media.  The cover of TIME magazine directly relates the word Buddhist with terror. By directly relating theses two terms, the media persuades the general audience to believe that Buddhists are the cause of terror. The cover of this magazine also shows a Buddhists wearing traditional Buddhist clothing. He has a sense of seriousness and discontentment in his eyes. His facial features are neutral and show no emotion. This representation of Buddhists categorizes Buddhists as tough and emotionless.


Buddhist Mob Attacks Muslims in Western Burma; 2 Killed

Myanmar Riots: Media is Ignoring Anti-Muslim Violence in Southeast Asia

Western Diplomats Visit Sectarian-Torn Myanmar

Why are Buddhist monks attacking Muslims

Myanmar frees 69 political prisoners

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