What is driving the violence in Burma? Race or religion? And can the two be distinguished from one another. Reports from the South East Asian nation have framed the conflict in terms of sectarian violence -- but is religion really the issue here?
The English-language service of France 24 reported that Buddhist monks had staged a mass political rally in the streets of Burma's second largest city Mandalay. But unlike the 2007 anti-government protests that sparked the unsuccessful "Saffron Revolution", France 24 reported this week's rally was in support of the government and against Muslim
Drawn from an AFP wire service report, France 24's headline read: "Buddhist monks stage anti-Rohingya rally". The subtitle firmly anchored the story to the theme of sectarian Buddhist-Muslim clashes.
Hundreds of Buddhist monks marched in the Burmese city of Mandalay on Sunday to back President Thein Sein’s proposal to deport members of the Rohingya Muslim minority group. Fighting between the two sides has left almost 90 people dead since June.
The article stated:
"Protect Mother Myanmar by supporting the President," read one banner, while others criticised United Nations human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana, who has faced accusations that he is biased in favour of the Rohingya, following deadly unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in western Rakhine state.
This article is the best I have seen so far on the disturbances. Written from Burma, it offered comments from a leader of the monks as well as concerns from international rights groups. But the title and subtitles given by France 24 do not quite match the story written by AFP.
The leader of the protest march did not use religion as a reason for his march, but race.
Wirathu, the 45-year-old monk who led the march, claimed that as many as 5,000 monks had joined the procession, with another several thousand people taking to the streets to watch.
He told AFP the protest was to "let the world know that Rohingya are not among Myanmar's ethnic groups at all".
The monk, who goes by one name, said the aim was also to condemn "terrorism of Rohingya Bengalis who cruelly killed ethnic Rakhines".
Speaking a dialect similar to one in neighbouring Bangladesh, the estimated 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar are seen by the government and many Burmese as illegal immigrants and the violence has stoked a wave of anger across the Buddhist-majority country.
The video accompanying the France 24 story along with the text of the article quoted the leader of the monks as stressing a clash of peoples who happen to be of different faiths, than a clash of faiths. In the video Wirathu tells the camera that all Burmese "religions, sects and political parties" are united against the Rohingya.
A second AFP story from Burma suggested that race and religion may not be divisible. In an article entitled "Myanmar Christians forced to convert: rights group" a spokesman for the Chin, a predominantly Christian minority group in Burma, stated:
Rachel Fleming, another member of the [Chin] group, said Christianity does not fit with the national view that "to be Burmese, you should be Buddhist"
Where then should the emphasis be in the phrase "Rohingya Muslim minority group"? On the ethnic -- Rohingya -- or religious -- Muslim -- descriptors for this minority group? It may well be argued that this is a meaningless distinction, that the reasons for the Rohinga's suffering are of secondary consequence to the fact of their suffering. I have some sympathy for this argument, but it is a journalist's duty to split these hairs and dig into a story. The bottom line is that what AFP reported is not so straight forward as the France 24 title suggested.
To paraphrase Neville Chamberlain, Burma is a far away country that we know little about -- and hence care little about. Why would balancing race versus religion matter? One consequence of the Rohingya conflict is that it has become a political football in the Islamic world, with some extremist groups calling for jihad against Buddhists.
The anti-Buddhist rhetoric became so bad the Central Tibetan Administration -- the Dalai Lama's government in exile -- issued a press statement denouncing the use of misleading photos to whip up anti-Buddhist sentiment in the Muslim world.
The Central Tibetan Administration based in Dharamsala is deeply disturbed and concerned over the circulation of a misleading photograph in some section of the media showing Tibetan monks in their reports on the recent violence in Myanmar involving Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.
A photograph of Tibetan monks standing in front of a pile of dead bodies appeared in many websites in the Muslim countries, especially Pakistan. This photo of Tibetan monks was actually taken during their relief work in Kyegudo (Yushul), eastern Tibet, after a devastating earthquake hit the region on 14 April 2010. The Tibetan monks extended remarkable service in the rescue and relief operations at the time.
The relevant department of the Central Tibetan Administration wrote a letter to a website in Pakistan (ColumPk.com, Urdu Current Affairs Portal) on 30 July to remove the photo from its website, which it did so the next day. But the photo is still in circulation, as some Muslims carrying the photo during their recent protest in Mumbai on 11 August 2012, appeared in Zee News, a leading news channel in India.
We strongly appeal to the media across the world not to use this photo, which is being circulated by miscreants to provoke conflict between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.
Pakistani pro-democracy bloggers have chronicled the use of the fake atrocity photo by Islamist extremist groups to inflame public sentiment, while retaliatory attacks on Buddhist temples in Indonesia by Muslim extremist groups in the wake of the Burmese conflict have been reported. Would these attacks have taken place if the Muslim angle were downplayed and the ethnic angle stressed? Does it make any difference? Should the press dig deeper into this story and find out what is really going on in Burma?
What say you GetReligion readers? How should this story be played out? Should reporters worry about the consequences of their stories if fanatics seize upon them for their own ends?