* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Founder of independent news agency Yangon Press International urges journalists to avoid being mouthpieces for nationalist politicians and religious extremists
The slight, soft-spoken woman onstage called on the media and the rest of the country to let go of narrow-minded nationalism.
“This is a time to fight for democratisation. We have to respect each and every ethnic (group) as a human being,” beseeched Mon Mon Myat, whose meek bearing veils her ferocity as a powerful freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker.
It was refreshing to hear these words in a public forum in Myanmar because - let’s face it - such sentiments have been sorely lacking.
Since religious conflict erupted June 2012, killing at least 240 people and displacing more than 140,000, mostly Muslims, Myanmar has been engulfed in hate speech.
Vitriolic and inflammatory comments targeting Muslims, who make up a small fraction of the country, have become worryingly common on blogs, web forums and Facebook pages. Internet access is low - some estimates say only 0.2 percent of the population is online - but young people, as well as a large Burmese diaspora worldwide, are increasingly using social media to share news and opinions.
Besieged by a fear that Muslims will take over Myanmar, Buddhist nationalists as well as some monks have urged people to boycott Muslim-owned businesses and successfully lobbied the government to draft controversial laws, including one that will restrict Buddhist women from marrying Muslim men. No similar restrictions are being planned for Buddhist men.
“The two strongest institutions in our country - the military and monk organisations - are driven by men, and promote nationalism and religion. That influences our media coverage,” Mon Mon Myat said on Tuesday at the second day of an international media conference organised by Hawaii-based East-West Center.
“I found that in the local media coverage, there are few voices on Muslims’ view. I think some owners worry their circulation may decrease if they are seen as sympathetic to the Muslims.”
RESCUED FROM HATE-FUELLED CONFLICT
Three years after a quasi-civilian government took office in Myanmar and introduced democratic reforms that have won near-universal praise, the issue of violence against Muslims is casting a long shadow on the country’s future.
Mon Mon Myat, who wrote an investigative report in 2013 on how social media posts and websites were stirring up hatred, said her analysis of two bouts of conflicts in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state and in central Meikhtila showed there are four steps to the process.
“The first step is that whatever happened, whether it was a rape or a quarrel, it is put on social media and (hatred is) stirred up through it,” she said.
Then the print media pique nationalism, influenced by nationalist editors, businessmen and religious leaders. When it becomes an ethno-religious conflict, the military steps in for the sake of people’s security, she said.
“This scenario creates the military as an essential institution for the country’s stability,” she added.
“First it is an ethnic conflict, later it becomes a religious issue and now even the president has handed over (the drafting of controversial laws) to the government so the president is showing he’s taking the side of the Buddhists,” she later told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It’s not good for our nation because (nationalism) is a tool politicians use to control the people and to sustain their power.”
As the 2015 elections draw near, she fears nationalism will be used even more to create conflict between different ethnic groups and religions.
“The most important thing for the media is they shouldn’t be used (by) the government, opposition or religious groups. They have to be independent and neutral,” she said.
“We’re far beyond the colonial period. We have to wake up from that very narrow-minded nationalist view. Everyone has equal rights and equal dignity and are equal human beings.”