Sunday, September 3, 2017

Rakhine State and the raging information war

image from

Two conflicts are raging in Rakhine State. One is on the ground and has claimed the lives of about 100 people since the August 25 terrorist attacks in Muangdaw and Buthidaung townships, while the second is in cyberspace and has intensified beyond all imagination.

Aster the attacks, which happened a day after the Kofi Annan commission released its final report on Rakhine, the State Counsellor’s Office quickly came out with a statement strongly condemning the attack along with guidelines for the media in addressing the issues in Rakhine.

National Security Adviser U Thaung Tun also gave a press conference and provided an official account of what occurred in the northern territory.

The information relating to the incidents was well publicised throughout the world. Early headlines focused on international condemnation of the attacks on government positions and the resulting casualties. However, days after the attacks, the information flow began to ebb from government sources. While the government managed to arrange for a group of reporters from local and international media to cover the attacks, their access was limited.

Then Yangon-based civil society organisations urged the government to allow them into the two troubled townships so they could assess the situation directly in the search for appropriate remedial responses. Indeed, valuable lessons should be drawn from the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which hit the Ayeyarwady Delta in 2008. Outside and independent assessments helped Myanmar mobilise international support and win sympathy. Since then, Myanmar has become more open with increased CSO [JB: NGO ?] presence. At the same time, after five decades of isolation, the authorities were now willing to engage with CSOs, turning Myanmar into one of the most dynamic people-centered ASEAN members. Although they receive foreign funding, their objectives are to provide additional assistance that will complement existing efforts on the ground provided by the government of the day [.]

In coming days, both media and CSO representatives should be allowed into the areas so they can make independent assessments. Without additional evaluation on the ground, the credibility of information and observations provided by the government or security forces could be at the low level. Obviously, to enter conflict areas all precautions must be taken to ensure safety.

The other front is the conflict being fought in cyberspace. These days, the ubiquitous social media can do a lot of good and harm at the same time. Unsubstantiated rumours, biased information and fake news are common these days – not only on issues related to Rakhine. Extremist and terrorist organisations are well-versed in exploiting the unlimited potential of cyberspace to their advantage.

The government and security forces must think outside the box as far as public diplomacy is concerned. Myanmar is no longer a dictatorship but a democracy, and the whole world is watching how the National League for Democracy, lead by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, would resolve the conflict in Rakhine.

Media and CSO access to the conflict areas should be granted whenever there is a guarantee that safety measures are in place. To avoid media and CSO scrutiny on the ground is not a good option because it will allow extremists armed with high-tech resources to spread their message and dominate the public discussion of the situation in Rakhine State.

To improve the awareness and understanding of the international community about Rakhine, all concerned authorities must be candid. In a world of interconnectivity and instant information, it is better to come clean at the first opportunity. That way, truthful information will prevail and help all stakeholders in the country have a thorough knowledge and appreciation of the government’s efforts to deploy preventive measure to provide public security.

Without understanding and support, especially of homegrown narratives, the rest of the world will look elsewhere.

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