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A Report on Media Coverage of the Recent Violence in Burma

Prepared by students of the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media

November 1, 2007

Summary

Civil society activists and human rights campaigners in India are very critical of Delhi’s silence on the mounting violence in Burma. The Indian media has been critical in its editorial pages as well. It has denounced the double standards maintained by the likes of Sonia Gandhi who made vague statements at the United Nations about non-violence even as the Burma violence escalated.

Despite the media’s support of the pro-democracy movement, there have been gaping holes in its coverage. For instance, when the petroleum minister Murli Deora went to Burma during the protests to sign an agreement, the Indian media largely ignored the news. Even as the papers editorialized and talked emphatically of Gandhian values, they allowed the coverage to die down slowly as the days progressed, so much so that on October 18 both the Indian Express and The Hindu ignored coverage of India’s close, strategically important and arguably most turbulent neighbor. Given the geographical and economic proximity of the countries, democratic India should be paying a lot more attention.

Perhaps the media has chosen the silent criticism approach because it does not want to be at loggerheads with the Indian government. The Indian media is pro-democracy but it wants to exercise caution because it does not want to affect India’s strategic relations with Myanmar. Whatever the reason for their caution, the print media has been more active in criticizing the government compared to television media, which has simply glossed over the entire issue.

Print Media’s Coverage

The Indian Print Media covered the Myanmar crisis fairly well despite the simultaneous furor caused by the politics of Karnataka and Pakistan. The three major national dailies, The Hindu, The Times of India (TOI) and The New Indian Express (IE), carried the news on the front page at the peak of the crisis. In contrast, the Deccan Herald (DH), published out of Bangalore, always carried the news in its foreign pages.

As the protests in Myanmar became more powerful, the newspapers increased their coverage. They gave detailed background and examined causes and effects in their editorials. The Hindu, for instance, published four stories and an editorial on September 28th, one of the worst days of crackdown by the Junta on the protestors. The IE used big pictures to give intimacy and authenticity of the issue to the readers. The only real exception was the DH, whose level of coverage did not increase much: it published one op-ed piece between September 26 and October 10 at a time when the other papers were running numerous op-eds and voicing their views.

The editorial voice of the papers sympathized with the people’s movement and criticized the Indian government for its “hand-off” attitude with regard to Burma. Viewpoints from world leaders expressing their disapproval of the Junta’s actions were highlighted in their reports. The IE, maintaining its anti-establishment heritage, questioned the international community which feels ‘concerned’ even as they stand by and watch the monks and peace workers being subjected to unthinkable violence.

The papers wrote in favor of India and China raising their collective voice to restore peace in Myanmar. The TOI’s viewpoint, reflected in most other papers was that Gandhian India must uphold its values of democracy and the government must raise its voice loud and clear against the military rule. And it must do this even at the expense of profit, with regards to the Shwe gas project deal. Such a stance will help prove India to be a major player in world politics, opined The Asian Age, especially since the West is rather powerless in the closed society of Myanmar.

The fact that India’s government did not protest against the Junta with a stronger voice irked the Deccan Herald. Its editorial called India’s diplomatic neutrality a ‘shame’ and ‘unfortunate’. India’s muted response is ‘an attempt to avoid going down that road’ of losing its benefits of gas, as it did when it supported Suu Kyi in the 1990s, it said. The junta has been suppressing the democratic uprisings ever since 1988. If India does not take a solid stand, the country will lose the general goodwill of the international community, the piece opined.

Television media’s coverage

Indian television supported the pro-democratic people’s movement, but surprisingly, the coverage and analysis has not been in depth enough, considering that Myanmar is India’s neighbor. The media has focused on the trials faced by the monks at the hands of the junta, but this coverage has not been set against a historical background or timeline of events. The causes leading up to the present situation has not been a priority for the Indian media.

News bulletins were restricted to the international section of the news, and at other times, tickers mentioned the violence in short sentences.

In contrast, the coverage given by the Western media has been comprehensive and detailed. The BBC covered all new developments, gave in depth background of the Myanmar issue, and examined the roles played by neighboring and Western nations.

Answers to a few questions

1) Did major Indian Newspapers cover the event? What was their general take?

Though major Indian Newspapers covered the Burmese crisis, the Indian media has not kept up the focused coverage like the international media has.

When the news broke, papers like the Times of India, The Indian Express, The Hindu, Asian Age, Deccan Herald, and Hindustan Times covered the Burma crisis. They carried news on the crisis on the International as well as the National pages. A few had front-page articles.

Most of the articles were sympathetic to the pro-democratic voice of the people. The newspapers carried reports about the moral support for the monks from the UN, and other countries like the UK and Japan. The main stream media focused on India’s closeness to the Burmese military regime and they tried to explain India’s position saying “New Delhi has sympathy for the troubled nation, but energy needs and relations with China are complicating the equation”, an example from the Business Week.

The Times of India: Swapan Dasgupta’s article is headlined ‘India needs Burma’.

It reads: “Burma was always regarded as the buffer zone between India and an expansionist China. But India abdicated its responsibilities and allowed Beijing to become the dominant influence in Burma. Today, China lurks over India from Pakistan, Tibet, Nepal and Burma. Its shadow has encroached into the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman islands. For India, the upsurge in Burma is an opportunity to turn the clock back.”

But there were no front-page stories. The news appeared in the International News section. The paper was against the military rule in Burma. India’s expected role, as seen by the West, received coverage. Mark Malloch Brown, UK minister for Asia and Africa, told TOI in an exclusive conversation, “India should say they support (UN special envoy) Ibrahim Gambari’s mission. India does not want to be drawn down the sanctions route. There’s a way to prevent that. India should offer Burma incentives to change, more engagements but with the threat that if the regime does not change there will be consequences.”

In further tightening the noose around military rulers in Myanmar, the US President George W Bush has announced more sanctions targeting individuals and entities and has asked countries like India and China to review their policies and law vis-à-vis the regime in Yangon.

A headline ran View from London: Myanmar strife: Europe puts moral onus on India: Forty-one days after the protests began in Myanmar and blood once more was spilt on its streets, the talk in European capitals is all about bringing pressure to bear on India to “do something”.

The names of people who helped in providing food and other necessities were mentioned. The business perspective with regard to the ONGC not withdrawing its operations in Burma was mentioned once as a headline. Public anger was being presented clearly in their reports.

Interviews with monks brought out the anguish of the people of Burma. Times had information about the political history of Burma, the sequence of events and the reason for the eruption of this imbroglio. The editorials explained India’s position.

The paper’s stance is that India can do what Europe can’t for Burma. The editorials spoke about innocent people who were put into prison.

They also spoke about how other countries will be affected by the violence in Burma. India has little to gain from Burma but as a country that has championed democratic values for ages, the paper said that the government needs to raise its voice loud and clear.

One editorial explained the structure of Burmese society; another, the difference between the earlier pro-democracy movements and this one. The main difference pointed out was that youth are more active, and there exists now a wide and informal network of communication.

The Times of India, through its editorials, urged India to do something for Burma.
It said: “Burma must return to our mental map. India needs Burma more than Burma needs it.”

India Today had a story Supping With the Junta in its Oct 8th issue. “Even as the cry for democracy rings out in Yangon, a pragmatic India sides with the Generals to safeguard its strategic interests.”  Many such articles focus on India’s needs and business interests. Here follows the stand that the different newspapers took in the Burma issue.

Indian Express: In Indian Express C. Raja Mohan was critical of the Indian Government signing “petroleum contracts with the Burmese government earlier this week” He said:  “…when people on the streets of Burma were demanding democracy did not necessarily imply venality. It underlined the inertia behind the old policy that that had become increasingly insensitive to shifting ground realities in Burma. Above all India’s passive policy in Burma has become counterproductive from the perspective of the national interest.”

A few days later Shishir Gupta wrote a response to Rajamohan’s: Rangoon isn’t Kathmandu: “Although the EU-US wants India to repeat its Nepal performance in Burma, India knows that the two situations are very different. …. India may share a 1338 km border with Burma, but bilateral trade is a sluggish $ 569 million, with Burma having direct sea access and strategic lines of infrastructure and communication to Kunming in China.… … … The UPA political leadership, in particular the Congress leaders, may privately be supportive of Aung San Suu Kyi and the monks now on Rangoon’s streets, but overtly it will have to deal with whosoever is in power; such is the security calculus.

New Delhi also knows that with the Burmese army controlling every part of society, transfer of power in that country will have to come through negotiations and not through revolution or isolation of the military regime. New Delhi has not forgotten that two years after Suu Kyi was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1993, the Burmese army suddenly withdrew in the midst of Operation Goldenbird and the surrounded militants escaped from the Indian dragnet. It does not want to visit that nightmare again.”

Another Express editorial says the basis for India’s reluctance to pull up the military regime in Burma is because of: “the need for Burmese Army’s cooperation in dealing with the insurgencies in the Northeast, Burma’s natural role as a land-bridge to Southeast Asia, and the importance of preventing Burma’s total dependence on China for external support. One should probably add India’s oil and energy interests to this list.”

Most of the stories wanted the Indian Government to take action because not doing so would give China an advantage over India. However, one does not find them supporting the cause of democracy in Burma. The print media wrote in favor of India and China raising their voice to restore peace in Burma. They had opinion polls (internet and SMS polls) seeking public opinion of how India should react to the problem.

Swapan Dasgupta talks about “the Gandhi legacy has added to India’s profound embarrassment”, and the heart of every Indian being with the pro-democratic movement.” The editorial opinion is that in Burma, India would prefer a regime wary of China.

Editorials question international attitude of watching monks and peace workers being subjected to unthinkable violence. Even though the world continues to feel ‘concerned’, they choose to stand by the ‘general’ and watch the atrocities. The paper says international communities are ‘being made spectators to the shocking violation of human rights’.

The Hindu: The Hindu looks at the protests with a sympathetic eye. An editorial by David Miliband fails to come out with any concrete suggestions to resolve the issue.

David Miliband is the Foreign Secretary of UK. His editorial column elicits sympathy but focuses more on what can be done.

He believes the solution lies in an integrated community of leaders with Suu Kyi playing a central role. Myanmar now needs a platform for opinions on all factions to be expressed and heard. Miliband sees the visit of UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari as the first step in the process. He puts the onus on the whole world (“with increased inter-dependence”), particularly India, who shares border with Myanmar. “Burma’s neighbours including India, are best placed to put the pressure on Burma’s military leadership.”

Asian Age: The Asian Age carried almost 50 reports of the crisis in Burma beginning September. An opinion column by S. Nihal Singh says that the incident has forced India to think of the need to play “realpolitik” and balancing practical power politics with ideals. This is the test for the country’s diplomacy “in its aspiration to be…a major power.” India cannot afford to stay neutral here. The world looks up to India as also China to play a major role. India “has been cultivating the junta in Burma for reasons of self interest,” Singh says. It has just finished signing a gas deal with Myanmar. Moreover, it needs Myanmar’s help in handling the influx in the North-East. China’s proximity to the country also gives it strategic importance.

The
Asian Age emphasized India’s role in the political situation of its neighbours. And how the country could prove itself to be worthy of the ‘major power’ tag that it seeks.

Hindustan Times: The Hindustan Times had an in-depth analysis of the Burma uprising. It carried a backgrounder on the series of events leading to the crisis. They had opinion polls. Reactions of the UN and other countries was covered.

Karan Thapar questioned ‘the voice of Indian democracy’ being ‘silent about the momentous struggle for liberty and rights in neighboring Burma?’ He was critical of the Indian reaction to the crisis and said “What has sealed our lips? The fact that the Burmese junta may cease to curb the activities of Indian militants and secessionists from Burmese soil. I don’t deny that it’s an important concern. It affects the integrity of our North-east.”

He went on to say “Our pact with them is Faustian and we need to break free of it.

“In the 60th year of our Independence, Burma is a test for Indian democracy. Alas, we are in danger of failing it.”

Brahma Chellaney in his piece questioned the International calls on Burma. He pointed out that urging Beijing to join in on the pressure was ironic. “The world’s largest autocracy is exhorted to help promote democracy or, at least, help check political suppression in another state. Is state repression greater in Burma or in China?” he asked

In India’s neighborhood, the diametrically opposite Western approaches toward military-ruled Pakistan and Burma are as jarring as the assiduous courting of the world’s biggest human rights abuser, China. Such double standards put undue pressure on India, as exemplified by the unwarranted calls that it suspend all ties with Burma (renamed Myanmar by the junta). Should the world’s most populous democracy have one freedom-related standard in foreign policy or a different one for each of its four large autocratically governed neighbours — Bangladesh, Burma, China and Pakistan? Having depleted their leverage against the Burmese junta, distant powers now advise Burma’s immediate neighbours like India and Thailand to follow their failed sanctions policy. [more]

Deccan Herald: The Deccan Herald carried regular reports on the Burma crisis and international reactions in its International and National pages.

An editorial said that it is high time India spoke up against the Burmese junta. It calls India’s diplomatic neutrality a ‘shame’ and as ‘unfortunate’. India’s muted response, it said, is ‘an attempt to avoid going down that road’ of losing its benefits of gas, etc. The country will lose the general goodwill of the international community if it does not take a solid stand, the piece opined.

2) We all hear that the government has asked “all parties take special care to ensure calm.” Is that all?  Did the government express its concern/disapproval of the military junta’s violent actions to suppress peaceful demonstrations and against monks at their monasteries?

India did not react strongly, as there seem to be a lot of factors involved including security concerns, trade and bilateral issues. India is an important investor in Burma, there seems no country better positioned to help the people of Burma. India has been slow to break its silence over street protests even though it has strong geographical, political and strategic links with its eastern neighbor.

Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee issued a statement saying he hopes that all sides will resolve their issues peacefully through dialogue, and “all sections of people will be included in a broad-based process of national reconciliation and political reform.”

When
Sonia Gandhi made a statement in the UN, she made a reference to Mahatma Gandhi’s values (for peace).

Jaya Jaitley, member of Samta Party, said, “State-to-state relations have to be based on basic morality. Nelson Mandela would still be in jail had the world not interfered and not done something about it and condemned it. We seem to be picking and choosing our foreign policy for different nations. In this case we shouldn’t be going to the United Nations and giving a brave speech.”

“Sonia Gandhi has shown the world that India is full of empty rhetoric and if she says people should have moral courage, she has also gone there to show that her own adopted country has no moral courage,” she added.

India did not react until Wednesday, when it made a cautious official statement calling for political reform in Burma. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said, “ We are concerned at the situation in Myanmar and are monitoring it closely. It is our hope that that all sides will resolve their issues peacefully through dialogue”.

Delhi’s unease over the protests was clearly illustrated when Petroleum Minister Murli Deora ran into a protest by Burmese pro-democracy activists in Delhi, before he left to Burma to sign the deal. The protesters carried placards reading “Deora, don’t go for gas, go for democracy” and “India stop supporting Burmese military rule”.

3) If Indian papers covered the events, where did it cover? How detailed? How much importance? Any op-eds?

The Indian Print Media has covered the Burma Protest fairly well. Despite the furor of politics in Karnataka and Pakistan, the newspapers gave a fair coverage to the Myanmar issue. When the protest was in its early stage, all the newspapers reported it in their international pages. But when the issue intensified, all the newspapers brought it to the front page.

Out of the four newspapers we have considered, namely, The Hindu, The Times of India, Deccan Herald, New Indian Express, all except Deccan Herald, put it on the front page. The Deccan Herald carried the news in the foreign page.

Deccan Herald carried only one op-ed as compared to the other three, which frequently published op- eds on the issue.

Deccan Herald: The protests and the entire political scenario in Myanmar hardly got front- page coverage from the Deccan Herald. The reports on the issue appeared on the foreign news page on most days.

The newspaper gave a regular update of the events in the country. There were news stories reporting the monks and nuns joining the common man in the streets to take on the military rule, albeit peacefully.
The Deccan Herald also gave a background to the story. It spoke about how the entire fiasco in Myanmar started with the sharp rise in fuel prices.

Between September 26 and October 10, 2007, the newspaper carried only one editorial column dealing with this issue. The editorial spoke on the root cause of the problem and on India’s stand on the issue. It also suggested that India take steps to persuade the military rulers in Myanmar as well as the National League of Democracy to hold talks and restore democracy in the nation immediately.

The Deccan Herald had just one opinion column by Pankaj Mishra. It spoke on the role of the monks in Myanmar—how they are looked up to as the moral answer to the military rulers in the Asian country.

“India needs to overtly engage the military junta in Myanmar and covertly cultivate contact with pro-democracy forces in the country. Whenever dictatorship in Yangon gives way to democracy in the years to come, then India would not be at a loss. This two-pronged policy will yield results both in the short term and long term from an Indian national security and foreign policy perspective.”

The Hindu: In the beginning, the issue was treated as international news on the international pages of The Hindu. After two days, when the protests gained pace, it was covered on the front page of the newspaper. But with the increasing intensity of the situation, the newspaper wrote editorials and op-eds on the issue and also included India’s response, considering its national interests.

From September 24, 2007, The Hindu carried least one article of two columns in the newspaper. Maximum coverage was on September 28, with four stories in international and national pages accompanied by an editorial.

Earlier a human-interest story on the Buddhists was covered. But later other angles including international, domestic and India specific angles were covered.

As the news developed, coverage became more and more detailed and made its way from international page to front page and editorial sections.

They covered everything from the UN envoy’s talks with the bureaucrats in Myanmar, to Indian political parties’ response.

The newspaper produced one editorial and one detailed op-ed. On September 28, four news articles were published; two on the international page, one editorial, and one on national news page.

The Times of India: The Times of India has covered the Myanmar pro-democratic protests well. Although most newspapers were preoccupied with the elections in Pakistan, The Times of India gave a fair coverage to the Myanmar issue. They started covering the issue from the September 22 and published at least one article everyday.

The coverage was detailed and informative. The articles covered all the incidents and gave related information of the events in Myanmar. It also published the political history of Myanmar.

The news was mostly covered on the international pages. Only on September 30, they carried an article in the National page of the paper. The number of articles increased as the protests intensified. They also published editorials from September 24 to October 10; they carried three editorials and two letters to the editors, about Burma. They also carried an opinion column by an International writer in the international page of the paper.

While The Times of India did not publish any articles on this subject on the front page of its newspaper, it often carried teasers on the front page. The international pages sometimes carried more than one article on Burma on the same day. For instance, on September 28 they carried three articles, and on October 1, two.

New Indian Express: The New Indian Express has covered the events primarily on world pages. The placements of the news articles changed with the nature of the news. Major news made it to the first page. Updates were given in brief on the front page.

The coverage has been detailed with daily updates. They used big pictures. The New Indian Express has carried one editorial and two letters to editors.

4) What about Indian TV?  How does it compare with CNN/BBC on the coverage?   What was their take on the event/violence?

Idnian TV has taken a pro- democratic stand on the entire issue.

Indian broadcast media coverage is mostly on the repression inflicted by military Junta on the Buddhist monks. The history / background that has led Burma to its present situation has not at all been a priority for the Indian Media. There were just tickers that mentioned about the violence. Also it was just shown in the international section of the news.

Indian Media has taken an independent stand on this issue, different from the diplomatic stand of the government of India.

The coverage given by the West has been a comprehensive and detailed one. Like, the BBC has covered it all from the key stories of the violence to giving a background to Burmese issue. For example it showed a feature- titled “Bravery shown by Burmese people-China’s role.” The western media has covered the role -played by the foreign players like USA, UK and China.

5) If the Indian media is not very much interested, why? After all, Indian government (and people) is now talking about being a super power and a major global player? Does it have interest in human rights issues?

Until the mid-1990s, India supported the Aung San Suu Kyi and the pro-democracy movement. It was in 2004 that New Delhi changed track and welcomed military strongman Gen Than Shwe during his visit to the Indian capital.

The priority for the world’s largest democracy under economist Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is now quite clear. A fast-growing economy, India is desperate to access any major source of energy in the neighborhood including Iran and Burma.

Burma’s huge natural gas reserves in the country’s western province of Arakan and the adjoining seaboard is estimated at more than 30 trillion cubic feet or more. This is a great attraction for energy-starved India. India has to compete with China for these resources.

India is getting help from the Burmese army to fight insurgents in its troubled north-east, many of whom have bases in Burma’s Sagaing Division.

Northern Myanmar forms an important buffer between India’s North-East and the Yunnan Province of China. In the past assistance for the insurgents in the North-East came from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in Bangladesh and from Yunnan.

After the Sino-Indian war of 1962, India suspected that some of the Chinese troops, which attacked us in Arunachal Pradesh, had moved from Yunnan through the Kachin State of Myanmar, by taking advantage of the absence of Myanmar’s administrative and military presence in large parts of the Kachin State.

The insurgents in the North-East have often operated from sanctuaries in Myanmar across the international border. A vacuum in Myanmar Government’s presence in the Kachin State would be to China’s advantage and to India’s detriment.

It is in India’s interest to help the Government of Myanmar to strengthen its presence in this area.
An unfriendly Myanmar with foreign naval presence in the Bay of Bengal would be a grave threat to India’s security. Geo-politically, with a friendly Myanmar, India could add more substance to her ‘Look East’ policies of building up relationships with South East Asia. Myanmar shares common borders with Laos and Thailand. 

Geo-economically, Myanmar is rich in natural resources and has appreciable production of crude oil, and natural gas.  It has sizeable deposits of copper, lead, tin, tungsten, steel and gold.  Some of these especially crude oil and natural gas could be an attraction for India.

“ India is desperate to counter Chinese influence in Burma. This, more than anything else, explains India’s complete reversal of its Burma policy in the 1990s,” says Rene Egreteau, author of an acclaimed book on India’s Burma policy, Wooing the Generals. India is now developing ports, building roads and railways and is competing with China for Burma’s oil and gas reserves as part of its “Look East Policy”.  Civil society activists and human rights campaigners in India are very critical of Delhi’s silence on the mounting pro-democracy protests in Burma.

India’s Burma policy is full of double standards and it must change now. Former spymaster and Burma specialist BB Nandy says the Burmese military junta has done nothing to make India beholden to it. “The gas from the explored blocs in Arakan has been given over to the Chinese. The Burmese army has not undertaken a big operation against our northeastern rebel groups like Bhutan did in 2003. The junta has taken us for a ride, so we have no reason to support their survival,” he said.

The present policy of Indian government towards military regime, however, has caused growing concern for the exiled Burmese community. While they understand the compulsion of a government, they can’t understand why India has lately been silent on the political repression in Burma. “We thank Indian government and the people for giving us shelter. But that is not enough. India being the world biggest democracy has the responsibility to actively support the democratic movement in Burma,” said a New Delhi-based Burmese democracy activist.

6) If the media has been silent, was it more or less uniform?  How could that happen on its own?  Is it the same old media policy of going along with government policy? Or any indirect censorship?

The Indian government has vested interest because of the Petroleum and gas energy in Myanmar. Nehru and U Nu had built up a personal friendship that formed the basis of Indo- Burmese relationship, which has lasted 60 years. The two countries have not once reached a point of diplomatic standoff or conflict since independence.

In 1988-1990 India had openly supported the forces of democracy but in 1990’s relations with Burma thawed again. Now India and Burma are co-operating in many fields including countering insurgency on the border, checking narcotics smuggling across the border promoting trade and investment.

The media rather than giving a vantage to these protestors in Myanmar has sublimed the whole issue because it might affect the treaty that was signed by India and Myanmar. The official line indicates that the government is still walking a tightrope in its bid to protect India’s energy security interests. The media rather than giving a voice to the monks protesting on the streets of Myanmar are suppressing them.

It is high time the press in India started talking about destruction of democracy in neighboring countries as it is like an infection that may overtake us before we know it. Petroleum minister, Murli Deora had been to Burma during the protests to sign an agreement, such is the insensitivity of the Indian government. The Indian media would definitely not cover such news, which might tarnish the image of our country in the global community.

The Indian media is pro-democracy but it wants to exercise caution since it does not want to affect India’s strategic relations with Myanmar. The Indian media has limited control and it cannot influence the government policies. India maintains diplomacy with Myanmar thus it is going to mould accordingly. Thus the Indian media is exercising caution in its coverage of the Burma issue.

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