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1/9/2019 Analysis: International Media Injecting Religion into Rakhine Armed Conflict


Analysis: International Media Injecting Religion

into Rakhine Armed Conflict

 An AA fighter is seen in a screengrab from a video released by the group to mark the ninth anniversary of its founding. 

By MOE MYINT 8 January 2019 1/5
1/9/2019 Analysis: International Media Injecting Religion into Rakhine Armed Conflict

YANGON—Bowing to public pressure, soon after publishing a report on the deadly Jan.
4 attacks by the Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine State, Reuters news agency removed the
word “Buddhist” from the story’s headline and lead paragraph. The initial story was
headlined: “Rakhine Buddhist rebels kill 13 in independence day attack on Myanmar
police posts.”

The AA’s coordinated attacks on four border police outposts in northern Rakhine
State’s strifetorn Buthidaung Township left 13 Border Guard Police officers and three AA
fighters dead. Though the conflict between the Arakanese rebels and the government
is essentially political, Reuters’ headline used religious terminology.

Many people disagreed with the agency’s use of the Rakhine community’s religious
affiliation in the headline and the story. It’s true that the majority of Rakhine people are
Buddhists. But critics voiced concern that emphasizing this in the headline of a story on
the armed conflict had potential to fuel international misunderstanding of the situation
in Rakhine.

The headline of Reuters’

original post on the story
about the AA attacks on Jan
4. Right: The story appears
with a new headline, some 18
hours later.

In 2017, after security forces’ clearance operations against the Arakan Rohingya
Salvation Army (ARSA) in the same area prompted nearly 700,000 Rohingya to flee to 2/5
1/9/2019 Analysis: International Media Injecting Religion into Rakhine Armed Conflict

Bangladesh, international media indiscriminately mislabeled all Buddhists in Rakhine

state as “violent”. With the headline “Rakhine Buddhist rebels kill 13 …”, did Reuters
want to portray Rakhine people as violent? What’s more, the heading implies that if
Buddhist groups are killing each other, there can be little wonder that the Buddhist
majority is intolerant of Muslims.

It needs to be asked why Reuters chose to use a religious term in reference to the
ethnic Rakhine. In its reports on other armed groups in Myanmar, it simply refers to, for
example, the KIA as “Kachin rebels” and to the KNU as “Karen rebels”, rather than
calling them “Christian Kachin rebels” or “Christian Karen rebels.” For example, a
Reuters report on the death of 23 cadets killed by Myanmar Army artillery fire on a KIA
training camp in 2014 referred to “Kachin rebels” in the headline, without specifying
their religion.

Yangon-based ethnic affairs analyst U Maung Maung Soe openly condemned Reuters
on his Facebook page, accusing the agency of religious incitement. He told The
Irrawaddy that using religious references in conflict reporting could spark problems.

“Please think about the potential consequences if you say, ‘Rakhine Buddhists and
Rohingya Muslim Rebels Are Fighting’ rather than saying ‘AA and ARSA’, he said.

U Maung Maung Soe was not the only person criticizing Reuters; local media experts
disagreed with the agency’s decision to insert the religious issue into the news story,
saying its reporting did not meet acceptable standards for what is known in the industry
as “conflict-sensitive journalism”.

Media adviser U Sein Win from Internews Myanmar said that the international
community’s knowledge of Rakhine State was mostly limited to issues relating to the 3/5
1/9/2019 Analysis: International Media Injecting Religion into Rakhine Armed Conflict

Rohingya, adding that global audiences were largely ignorant of the ethnic Arakanese
(another term for Rakhine). He assumed that Reuters had emphasized “Buddhist” in the
headline in order to avoid confusion with the Rohingya, but said that as the conflict is
not a religious one, the news agency should not have used the term in that way.

He explained that while it was acceptable to identify a group’s religious affiliation in a

headline if the issue being reported was related to religion, it is discouraged in conflict-
sensitive journalism, as conflicts can be worsened by sensational coverage. He added
that an agency was within its rights to use religious descriptions in reports when they
appear as part of a name, such as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA).

“Our choice of words in a report should maintain stability and we journalists have a
responsibility not to cause divisions within communities. That is the meaning of conflict-
sensitive journalism,” U Sein Win said.

When asked if the agency’s removal of the word “Buddhist” was prompted by the
public perception that Reuters had ignored local and religious sensitivities, the
agency said via an email on Monday that, “In keeping with our commitment to the
Reuters Trust Principles of independence, integrity and freedom from bias, we updated
this story to clarify the context that the Arakan Army insurgency is ethnic, rather than

In fact, Reuters is not alone in using religious terminology in its reporting on the
Rakhine conflict. The Wall Street Journal used an even harsher headline: “Buddhist
Violence Portends New Threat to Myanmar”. In its reporting on fighting between the AA
and the Myanmar Army, Al Jazeera has used terms like “Buddhist Rebels”
and “Buddhist groups.” 4/5
1/9/2019 Analysis: International Media Injecting Religion into Rakhine Armed Conflict

But it is Reuters that has attracted the most attention from local netizens, as the agency
has been under public scrutiny in Myanmar since last year’s arrest of two local
reporters who covered a mass killing of Rohingya in Rakhine. Their arrest and reporting
sharply divided public opinion. So the agency’s lack of local and religious sensitivity
could further widen the divisions.

Writing on his Facebook page, Letyar Tun, who works with a media development INGO,
questioned Reuters’ professionalism.

He said Reuters should have referred to the AA using the ethnic group’s own language
—the Arakan Army—rather than dubbing them “Rakhine Buddhist rebels”.

“As journalists, your most powerful tools are the words you use, along with pictures and
sounds. You can use your tools to build peace and understanding instead of fear and
myths,” he wrote.

Topics: Arakan Army, Conflict, Journalism, media ethics, Rakhine, Reuters, Rohingya

Moe Myint
The Irrawaddy

Moe Myint is  Senior Reporter at the English edition of The Irrawaddy. 5/5