When I first visited Burma 20 years ago this month, the country was ruled by a repressive military junta called the SLORC, and its Nobel laureate democracy activist, Aung San Suu Kyi, was under house arrest and faced almost daily vilification in the official newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar. Banned radio stations such as the BBC were denounced as a “skyful of lies,” and critics of the military faced long prison sentences as “internal and external destructive elements.”
Although many changes have taken place in Burma in recent years, the government’s recent reaction to criticism of the military recalls a more repressive time. This began after militants who were ethnic Rohingya – a Muslim minority long persecuted in Burma – attacked three security force facilities on October 9, killing nine government officers.
The Global New Light of Myanmar, despite its rebranding and widespread reporting that security personnel retaliated by killing, raping, and beating Rohingya in Rakhine State, has published articles denying the military’s responsibility. Presidential spokesman Zaw Htay sounded like his junta-era predecessors by blaming the international media for disseminating fabricated information. The government has blithely adopted the military’s version of events, which is never a good thing when the military is the accused.
On November 13, Human Rights Watch released further evidence of the military’s abuses – satellite imagery analysis showing mass torching of 430 buildings in Rohingya villages. The government responded by calling a press conference in an attempt to refute our work.
This week, we released an updated set of images, bolstered by analysis and witness accounts, that indicate the security forces’ responsibility for burning about 1,500 buildings in several waves of arson. These findings were met today by an article in Burma’s government newspaper admonishing the international media for criticizing the government.
The official view – whether from government spokesmen or media – is a toxic mix of dismissals and baseless counterclaims, such as the claim that Rohingya set fire to their own homes, and bolstering racist statements from officials who claim rape isn’t occurring because Rohingya women “are very dirty.”
Just one year on from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy’s resounding win in the 2015 general election, some in the Burmese government are sounding themes that remind of the country’s dark junta-era past. One wonders whether these narratives truly reflect the views of Suu Kyi and the many members of her party who suffered for years as political prisoners. Did they sacrifice so much then to be indifferent now to the suffering of others?