The government of Myanmar has forced Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to cease its operations in Rakhine state, home to Myanmar’s tiny Rohingya Muslim minority. Rohingya Muslims constitute one of the world’s poorest ethnic groups—MSF has for years served as the sole healthcare provider to a community of 1 million people, many of whom live in isolated refugee camps—and also one of the most vulnerable. MSF’s response to recent Buddhist-led violence against Muslims in Rakhine, which the government in Yangon denies, appears to have prompted MSF’s censure.
Reuters, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, Voice of America and other Western news media outlets quickly picked up on the story, which follows on the heels of a less widely reported development: the proposal of legislation, prompted by a petition drafted by prominent Buddhist monks, to “protect the race and religion” of the country’s Buddhist majority. The bill would place restrictions on religious conversion and interfaith marriage, ban polygamy and attempt to control population growth—measures squarely aimed at Myanmar’s economically and politically disenfranchised Muslim minority. As of this writing, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, whom Western activists have pressed to speak out more forcefully on behalf of minority Muslims, has declined to condemn the legislation.
In recent weeks, events in Ukraine and Syria have dominated international coverage in U.S. news media, priorities that reflect American anxieties over Russian influence, on the one hand, and stability in the Middle East, on the other. But as the Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this week, the regional refugee crisis spawned by Myanmar’s repression of the Rohingya is complicating Yangon’s efforts to integrate itself into the global market economy, a process initiated through American diplomacy at time when Myanmar’s monks were being valorized rather than rebuked by their Westernized coreligionists.
As with so much else in the era of globalization, no instance of inter-group violence happens in isolation, regardless of whether news consumers choose to direct their attention toward the conflict.
This inattentiveness is largely a consequence of the Myanmar story’s upending of common prejudices and expectations: In news media narratives since the ouster of Saddam Hussein, Muslims are seldom portrayed as victims of repression who need our sympathy and assistance. And Asian Buddhist monks are generally depicted as cryptic but kindly vectors of the therapized form of Buddhist practice that dominates Western spiritual culture.
As I’ve suggested before, reporting on Buddhist violence against Muslims in Myanmar has typically traded on the sensationalism and novelty of the story without generating the kind of sustained coverage that the crisis in Rakhine deserves. The suspension of MSF’s activities, coupled with proposed anti-Muslim legislation and Aung San Suu Kyi’s circumspection in the face of injustice, provides journalists with a chance to change that deplorable inertia.