Media coverage of the Rohingyans has barely broken the surface

Francis Wade

Mar 18, 2009 (DVB), While the world remains shocked by the story of the Rohingya boatpeople who washed up on Thailand's shores in January, the media coverage has failed to open up a discussion on the wider Burmese refugee crisis.

It is a situation that is, to put it politely, being 'under-reported'; a classic problem of media hype, when the surface layer of a story is mulled over again and again without adequately probing the underlying context.

The international frenzy around the Rohingya story has brought the situation of arguably Burma's most downtrodden ethnic group to global attention, and rightly so.

Last week the head of the United Nations refugee agency, Antonio Guterres, traveled to Burma and met with officials from the governing State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to "discuss" the issue, and expand "humanitarian space". He paid a visit to Rakhine state, home of the Rohingya, where the UNHCR has offices.

It was Guterres' first visit to Burma, and comes four years into his five-year stint as head of the UNHCR. If one could believe that UN officials prioritized a regional topic by its media notoriety, then he could be forgiven for not arriving sooner.

Prior to the Rohingya story, coverage of Burma's broader refugee problem had been myopic, to say the least, and that is despite the country suffering one of the worst natural disasters of modern times and a civil war that has raged longer than any still underway on this planet.

Refugee experts will know that these two factors, and the baggage they carry, are the biggest cause of forced displacement.

The Rohingya coverage failed to alert the world to the 140,000-odd Christian Karen refugees who have fled a 60-year conflict with the Burmese military and are now holed up in camps along the Thai border. They are not 'newsworthy' because the cripplingly restricted lives they lead allows few chances for a spontaneous news flash.

Like the Rohingyas, they fall outside of the government's political, social and racial comfort zone, and so are unable go home to Burma. They are also unable to set foot outside of the camps' perimeters because they are illegal persons under Thai law, and thus condemned to a life as stateless, invisible peoples.

The coverage also failed to highlight another seldom seen extension to Burma's refugee crisis.

A report issued last week by The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre found that nearly half a million ethnic Burmese are displaced inside Burma's rural eastern regions alone, hundreds of miles away from the Rohingya spotlight and, consequently, Guterres' radius.

Karen state alone, which borders Thailand's northwest region, is where over 100,000 internally displaced people reside , those who haven't managed to find 'refuge' in the border camps. Here is where conflict between the Burmese military and ethnic insurgent groups has been most acute, and where humanitarian access is highly restricted.

Guterres' visit has resulted in what seem to be merely cosmetic compromises from the junta, such as age-old promises of development. Ironically, these practices, aimed partly at alleviating outside pressure on the regime, are another major contributor to internal displacement.

'Development', in SPDC lingo, carries with it widespread forced labour and land confiscation. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma said last year that such practices "drive down incomes to the point that people have no choice but to leave their homes." As the world learnt after Cyclone Nargis, internal displacement inside Burma is not necessarily the 'softer option' compared to those forced to flee the country.

Burma is almost unique in its level of self-imposed isolationism: few other countries in the world place such tight restrictions on outsiders , whether aid workers or journalists, even government officials , accessing victims of conflict or natural disasters. Little help can reach these people, and scant details about the scale of the situation can get out, rendering the problem terminally self-perpetuating.

Guterres' absence from Burma over the last four years is symptomatic of this, yet his visit is unlikely to open the window any wider. The Rohingya issue symbolizes a systematic problem for ethnic Burmese who, solely due to the star they were born under, are forever tossed about and trampled on. With domestic Burmese media an outlet only for the most blatant propaganda, it is the responsibility of international journalists to dig deeper when the chance arrives; before the junta promises Rohingyans a 'safe-haven' back in Burma and the spotlight moves elsewhere.

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