Setting the Record Straight
covering burma and southeast asia
Monday, October 25, 2021


Setting the Record Straight



Many Thais spoke out against foreign experts’ portrayal of the political crisis in their country. When will Burmese be able to do the same?

For some observers, the crackdown on Redshirt protesters in Bangkok on May 19 invited comparisons to similar events in Burma, where the ruling regime has repeatedly resorted to military force to suppress anti-government demonstrations.

Although there are indeed similarities—notably, the use of violence as a means of asserting the authority of the state in the face of a perceived threat to stability—there are also many differences.

In Burma, a protest of this nature would not have been allowed to continue for two months before the army moved in with overwhelming force. When the Burmese regime decides to act, it moves quickly, crushing its opponents without hesitation or regard for public or international opinion.

Another contrast is that Burmese calls for democracy have never been part of a political vendetta. In Thailand, on the other hand, the recent political unrest had as much to do with clashes within the ruling class as it did with the demands of ordinary people.

But perhaps the most striking difference is the way Thais have responded to the attention that their internal troubles have attracted in the rest of the world.

While Burmese often complain among themselves about the way some foreign “experts” portray the situation in their country but rarely express their views publicly, many Thais were outspoken when they detected signs of what they saw as bias on the part of international observers.

In one widely circulated critique of CNN’s coverage of the conflict in Bangkok, for instance, lawyer Napas Na Pombejra accused the network’s correspondents of slanting their reporting in favor of the Redshirts. In her open letter to CNN, she wrote:

“The magnitude of harm or potential extent of damage that erroneous and fallacious news reporting can cause to (and exacerbate), not only a country’s internal state of affairs, economic well-being, and general international perception, but also the real lives and livelihood of the innocent and voiceless people of that nation, is enormous.”

Nor was it just the media that came under fire for supposedly lacking a proper understanding of the Thai situation.

Just before the army crackdown in Bangkok, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya urged foreign diplomats not to meet Redshirt leaders or interfere in Thai domestic affairs. He also accused some ambassadors of voicing opposition to Thailand’s constitutional monarchy and criticizing the government’s handling of the crisis.

Whether or not one agrees with the specific criticisms leveled against the international media and members of the diplomatic community, it is difficult not to admire the quick and effective response of some Thais to what they saw as foreign meddling.

In Burma, by contrast, the state-run media, which acts as a mouthpiece of the ruling junta, is hopeless at making a convincing case for the regime’s actions. To be fair, however, this is mostly because the official version of events is usually so completely at odds with reality that not even the world’s most sophisticated PR operation could put a positive spin on, say, the generals’ decision to gun down unarmed monks or leave thousands to die in the wake of a massive cyclone.

But what about other Burmese—especially those in exile, who are not subject to draconian censorship? Are we any better at getting our message across when we believe that others have got the story wrong?

Sadly, our record on standing up to misrepresentations peddled by self-appointed “authorities” on Burmese affairs is mixed, at best. The reasons for this are complex and reveal a great deal about the powerlessness of the Burmese people not only in their own country, but also in the world at large.

Perhaps the key reason that Burmese exiles are reluctant to openly state their objections to views expressed by foreigners is that they know they need as many allies as they can find in their struggle to overcome military rule.

But while they may be wary of alienating their foreign friends by pointing out the errors in their sometimes simplistic assessments of Burma’s problems, they sometimes feel exasperated by the fact that ill-informed Western policy makers and powerful aid agencies often seem to have more say in Burmese affairs than they do.

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Natalia W Wrote:
Excellent editorial. I disagree with the comment below from John L. The author made it clear he passed no judgment whatsoever regarding the *claims* of the local Thais, but commended Thai civil society for actively rising up against what they perceived as injustice being done against them.

The subject-matter of the Thais' actions is separate from the act itself, which John L below can't seem to quite grasp. In light of freedom of speech and expression, there can be no question of whether the "actions by the Thais was correct" - everyone is at liberty to act or speak out on any issue. The issue is not whether Thais were "right" to voice complaints against foreign media, but whether such complaints had any substance. It is not a matter of "right" or wrong at all.

John L's generalization that complaints against foreign media in Thailand came from "Bangkok people" is also untrue. Many expats as well as Thais nationwide - not just in Bangkok - lodged complaints against CNN & BBC.

John L Wrote:
While your article does an admirable job in highlighting the inability or unwillingness of Burmese to articulate their case, it also gives the impression the action by the Thais was correct, especially the complaints against CNN, the BBC, et al.

In fact nothing could be further from the truth. The Bangkok people weren't correcting meddling self-appointed experts, but independent journalists who were covering events live, on location, putting themselves in the firing line (including me).

Their comments were in part, part of the cyberwar that ran during the red-shirts protests, and in part driven by (wrong) nationalist pride.

I think you should be more careful in drawing a parallel between the two.

Perhaps Burmese are less quiet until they are certain on matters, or more united as a nation and so therefore refuse to partake in propaganda that only serves to damage the country by denying what is in fact true.

Reg Varney Wrote:
Oh, really excellent stuff. Encourage Burmese to act like world-ignorant nationalist zealots and attack the international media that produces reports that filled a gap left by the compliant local media that asked not one hard question of the government. That really is a disturbing recommendation.

By the way, The Irrawaddy's coverage was generally very good and far superior to the junk in Thai newspapers. Well done.

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