Representation of the Census Conflict in Myanmar

Posted on May 17, 2014 by


Carston Dammann

World Religions project

Representation of the Census Conflict in Myanmar

            The country of Myanmar (also known as Burma) has been in constant conflict for the past couple of years.  This conflict is between the Buddhist majority and a minority that refer to themselves as Rohingya Muslims.  Like many conflicts around the world, this one is also a clash between two religions that throughout history have not gotten along.  Amidst all of this conflict, the government of Myanmar/Burma decided to take a national census.  The problem with this census is that there is no box on it to check and identify one’s self as a Rohingya Muslims, which essentially excludes 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims from the population.  With all of this conflict, news media sources from around the world are covering the story.  Also, covering the conflict is the local Myanmar news media and various political news sources.  These news sources all show the conflict in a little different light depending on where the news sources is coming from and what the target audience is.  Larger, more Western news media sources have a much more unbiased opinion when reporting about the Myanmar census, whereas local and Buddhist news media have a biased opinion against the Rohingya Muslims and the census.  The first step in understanding the different biases of the news sources is learning about the background of the conflict between the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya Muslims minority in Myanmar.

            Myanmar is located in south Asia, between India, China, and Thailand.  The majority of the country is Buddhist, and has only recently emerged from a half-century of military rule.  There is a small party of Myanmar that is home to the Muslim minority.  This part is on the Bay of Bengal and is known as Rakhine, and the Muslims that live there identify themselves as Rohingya Muslims.pic   Throughout history, Muslims and Buddhists have been in conflict, and Myanmar is no exception to this.  For many years the Rohingya Muslims have been discriminated against by “Buddhist extremists”, and have even been denied citizenship by the government of Myanmar (which is also a Buddhist majority) because they are considered immigrants from Bangladesh.  Now, the Myanmar government decided to take its first national census in 30 years, and without a place on the census to identify as a Rohingya Muslim it is likely that a large amount of the Rohingya Muslim minority will go uncounted.  This new development in the ongoing Myanmar conflict has spurred many news stories, both from world media sources and local media sources.

Many world media sources, such as BBC, Aljazeera, US News, and CNN have been covering the constant suppression of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and now with the new development of the census that excludes the Rohingya Muslims, more news stories from these sources have emerged.  In the past, there have been other world news stories about the discrimination and oppression of the Rohingya Muslims stating how groups of Buddhist extremists have attacked them and even put them into shanty town like camps surrounded by armed guards.pic2  Then the news about the upcoming census, and the exclusion of the Rohingya Muslims from it, came to light and the world media sources started to report on that.  Many of the reports discussed the discrimination of the Buddhist government against the Muslims.  Aljazeera explains how “Myanmar’s million-plus Muslim Rohingya population doesn’t officially exist on government records” and how the Buddhist run government is trying to claim that the Muslims are illegal “Bengali” immigrants without citizenship.  They explain that the Myanmar government is trying to force the Rohingya Muslims to identify themselves as Bengali Muslims.  Aljazeera goes on to talk about how many Buddhists in Myanmar are stopping the foreign aid that is being offered to the Rohingya Muslims, and some Buddhist nationalists are threatening to boycott the census if the Rohingya are allowed to register their ethnicity.  Many of the other world news sources give similar articles on the subject.  BBC and US News talk about the same type of problems with the census, as well as describing how government officials’ show up to Rohingya Muslim camps with armed military and simply ask them their ethnicity, and if they say they are Rohingya they are not counted in the census.  Police and volunteers walk as the government embarks on a national census at a Rohingya refugee camp in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine StateWhen analyzing the message that is being communicated from the major, Western world news sources, it is clear that they are saying that the blame is on the Myanmar government and the Buddhist majority of the country.  They portray the Rohingya Muslim minority as a severely persecuted people that are constantly being discriminated by a Buddhist government that is in the wrong.  These roles of Buddhists and Muslims are even seen in the pictures posted in the articles.  These pictures usually show malnourished, impoverished Rohingya Muslims that are being forced by armed guards to take the census.  This portrayal of the Rohingya Muslims as the victim, and the Buddhist extremists and government as the bad guy, seems logical when you look at who the audience is for these news sources.  All of these major world news sources are reporting to a more “western” audience that is not previously biased about the ongoing situation in the area.  This allows the major world news sources to give a more non-biased, realistic look at the situation going on in Myanmar and identify who is the victim and who is to blame.  These news sources are also quite reliable; being big corporate news media sources that are held accountable on the accuracy of the information they report.  Even with all of that, there are still possible reasons for a slight bias in these news sources.  One such reason is that many Buddhist extremists have also been attacking UN aid that is being sent to Rohingya Muslims, and the Myanmar government has continually ignored the requests of the UN to allow the Rohingya Muslims to identify themselves how they wish on the census.  These major news sources see the UN as being “on their side” in a conflict, so when the UN is attacked these news sources will likely respond by showing the attackers in a more negative light in their articles.  The main takeaway point when analyzing these media sources that are reporting on the census dispute in Myanmar is that they are relatively unbiased, and give a more general picture of what the government and Buddhist population are doing to the long discriminated against Rohingya Muslims.  While these sources are unbiased and reliable, other sources are not as reliable or unbiased.

If one were to move away from the more western, world news media sources and look at local Myanmar and Buddhist media sources one would see a much different outlook on the census dispute.  When looking at one of Myanmar’s main newspapers online, the Myanmar Times, it gives a much different spin on the current situation.  The Myanmar Times talks about how the government told the Rohingya Muslims that they could not be counted as Rohingya, but that they may identify themselves as Bengali which would allow them to still be counted. This gives the impression that the government of Myanmar is offering a reasonable solution for the Rohingya Muslims by letting them identify as Bengali Muslims.  It does not give the impression that they are forcing them to identify as Bengali or nothing else, like the Western news sources did.  It also talks about how most censuses are undercounted, and they give the example that “Even in the US, undercount is a big issue after spending billions”.  In another article the Myanmar Times talks about how Khaing Soe, director of the ministry’s census technical team, talks about how they just do not want to see any issues of bloodshed in this census caused by allowing Muslims to identify themselves as Rohingya.  The Myanmar Times article also goes on to describe how many Rohingya’s complained that what the census takers put down was not what they stated that they wanted to be put down, but these criticisms were refuted by officials as “untrue” and stating how the census is overall “very successful”.5  After comparing these local news articles to the major world news articles, one can clearly see the difference in the message that is being sent to the reader.  The Myanmar Times is much more biased against the Rohingya Muslims and supports and defends what the Myanmar government is doing.  They do not show the Rohingya Muslims as the victim and the government and Buddhists as the abuser, but almost the other way around.  They portray the Myanmar government as the good guys that are just trying to do their job and not cause any more unneeded bloodshed in the country.  This bias may seem surprising, until the target audience of the local Myanmar media is looked at.  The target audience of the local media, such as the Myanmar Times, is aimed at the Buddhist majority of the country who already discriminates against the Rohingya Muslims, and who also run most of the Myanmar government.  This would explain why the government is shown as the good guy that is just trying to prevent violence, and the Rohingya Muslims as being stubborn about the census.  Also, other news sources out of Myanmar, such as Mizzima News, focuses more on the problems of taking the census now than they do the problems of excluding the Rohingya Muslims.  This shows that news sources out of Myanmar are less focused on the problem of excluding the Rohingya Muslims and more focused on the overall wellbeing of the Buddhist majority.10  Even when analyzing the pictures in local Myanmar news articles it is to be noted that there are no photos of Rohingya Muslims being forced to take the census at gunpoint, but instead friendly pictures of hardworking census takers.  pic4After analyzing the Myanmar Times, and other local news sources, it is apparent they are biased against the Rohingya Muslims and in support of the government.

News sources often reflect biases depending on what audience they are trying to target, and where the news is coming from.  In the situation with the conflict involving the Myanmar census and the discrimination against the Rohingya Muslims, this bias is seen when comparing local Myanmar news sources and large, Western news sources.  Larger, more Western news media sources (such as Aljazeera, BBC, CNN, and US News) have a much more unbiased opinion when reporting about the Myanmar census, whereas local and Buddhist news media have a biased opinion against the Rohingya Muslims and the census.  This shows the biases in a news article that may not always be present when it is first read, but upon closer inspection is much more glaringly apparent.


1)      Holland, Hereward. “In Pictures: Myanmar’s census bars Rohingya.” . Aljazeera, 14 Apr. 2014. Web. . <>.

2)      “Burma census bans people registering as Rohingya.” . BBC News, 30 Mar. 2014. Web. . <>.

3)      “UN says it’s ‘deeply concerned’ Myanmar’s Rohingya are being excluded from long-awaited census.” . US News, 2 Apr. 2014. Web. . <>.

4)      Mon, Ye. “Data Holes Emerge as Census Continues.” . Myanmar Times, 4 Apr. 2014. Web. . <>.

5)      Mon, Ye. “Census collection winds down amid controversy.” . Myanmar Times, 28 Apr. 2014. Web. . <>.

6)      Sittwe, Fiona MacGregor. “Census off to a bad start in Rakhine State.” . Myanmar Times, 1 Apr. 2014. Web. . <>.

7)      Aziz, Maha Hosain. “Is Asia Facing a New Wave of Religious Extremism?.” . CNN, 28 Mar. 2014. Web. . <>.

8)      “UN raises alarm over Rohingya Muslim abuse.” . Aljazeera, 8 Apr. 2014. Web. . <>.

9)      Soe, Hein Ko. “Census extended in Rakhine, Kachin states, says official.” . Mizzima, 23 Apr. 2014. Web. . <>.

10)   Jagan, Larry. “A flawed exercise: Myanmar’s ill-timed census.” . Mizzima, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. . <>.

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