Thursday, October 11, 2007

Cunningham: Burma Fades from View


After years of frustrating quietude, Burma's long-simmering discontent has broken out into an open boil. A daring spiritual protest was followed by a cruel and callous bloodletting, the kind of event that brings out the best and worst of the global media. The uplifting image of maroon-robed barefoot monks with upturned alms bowls gliding down grubby Rangoon streets surrounded by masses of adoring civilians was the penultimate performance art, created by anonymous thousands, hand-delivered to journalists as a gift to a jaded world. Such footage was obtained under trying conditions and supreme personal risk, the work of intrepid individuals willing to forsake comfort and safety to tell a story that needs to be told.

Compelling images, enhanced by an exotic setting, captured the gist of the Burma story. It is in the nature of the medium to focus on stories with good visuals; indeed TV news at its most engaging is packed with sights and sounds that not only awe but educate.

To the extent the maroon revolution was televised, the work was done mostly by amateurs. Then the screen went dark, as Buddhist monks, the penultimate moral authority in the orthodox Theravada Buddhist culture of Burma, were shot at and beaten in scores, cameras confiscated and thousands of witnesses and participants put under lock and key.

Despite the momentary lull, the crackdown bodes ill for the superstitious Than Shwe kleptocracy that has until now been able to rule Burma with an iron fist, because even the military, through its mindful cultivation and supervision of the Buddhist clergy, would be the first to admit that no good karma can come from the killing of monks. By the same token, no good can come of the killing journalists, who collectively, despite individual imperfections and failings, serve as a lay clergy of sorts, moral arbitrers for much of the world outside of closed countries like Burma, from Moscow to Baghdad, from Johannesburg to Japan.

When Burma reinvented itself as Myanmar after the bloody massacre of Burmese students in 1988, the Japanese media, like the blindly politically correct CNN, embraced the unhappily revised status quo with such linguistic zeal that a Tokyo-based reporter would have to argue with editors to use the word "Burma" rather than "Myanmar", even, absurdly, in at least one instance, in an article that made reference to George Orwell's "Burmese Days."

But the cold-blooded on-camera killing of Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai on September 27, 2007 as he filmed the unfolding of protest in the streets of Rangoon has shocked and galvanized the Japanese media, even the quasi-governmental NHK, enough to cause Japan's "neutral" stance to be reconsidered. As the regime that calls itself "Myanmar," becomes synonymous with horror, the old word "Bi-ru-ma" the Japanese rendering for Burma, is likely to make a comeback.

That the killing of a single Japanese citizen has provoked more outrage than the deaths of a dozen unknown local demonstrators speaks partly to the tribal nature of the media in today's world, but also points to the importance of access and the elements of good story-telling. Nagai's story can be shared effectively because documented facts and images exist that make a rounded telling possible. His parents and coworkers were interviewed, his camera work put on view. But even allowing for bias in the coverage, Nagai's fate was not only supremely newsworthy, but appropriately paired with the pain and loss suffered by dignified Burmese monks and civilian demonstrators.

Kenji Nagai was shot in the back while doing his job, his body and passport returned but not his camera. Through him, the world got a shocking glimpse of Burma's shoot-to-kill politics. Even a casual TV viewer fuzzy on the details --and who isn't given the dearth of information coming out of Burma—can see that there is something terribly wrong about a regime that operates in such a way. The brutal imagery of people with guns gunning down people without guns speaks for itself.

If it bleeds, it leads. Long the mantra of the tabloid press and TV stations desperate to find an audience, these callous words might as well be the mantra for the global cable and network giants.

CNN and other news giants have done a decent job using other people's footage to catch up with a story that took the world by surprise in part because of their own negligence, bestowing with its obligatory 15 minutes of fame and then a bit more. But few if any card-carrying cable stars and camera crews can get into Burma, effectively putting the story back on the back burner. Photos posted to the Internet strain to fill the gap, and a range of motley voices from refugees and militant minorities to a handful of bloggers inside Burma, have tales to tell, but bloggers are not journalists and verification remains vague.

Even as one of the world's great humanitarian struggles fades from the screen, the 24/7 news show must go on. Celebrity practitioners of TV journalism will fill in the gaps as before, inadvertently focusing on the celebrity of celebrity, whiling away precious air-time, re-directing attention away from the afflicted to the affluent and their own fastidiously groomed selves.

Meanwhile, as Burma, the land once lovingly described by Kipling as full of "sunshine, palm trees and tinkly temple bells" recedes from view, its people are at risk of being felled like trees in a far-off forest, invisible and all but unheard.

Phillip Cunningham
Dosisha University


Unknown said...

Burma has to do this on her own, she cant rely on outside forces. See here.

Everybody is clutching at straws, bellowing at China, India, ASEAN, Japan, Mongolia, and Nicaragua to do something about Burma. But why would they help and what makes them think that the Burmese Generals will even listen to them? I am a simple man who gets easily confused. So this is the analogous situation as I see it. You have a wife-beater goon living on your street. Recently, you heard the wife screaming and crying in pain from the beating that her husband has was administering to her and has been doing so for the past twenty years. She has been beaten over and over and she has been progressively starved. Now let us follow the analogy.
Continued on at

Da' Buffalo Amongst Wolves said...

Why don't you just come out and say it?
Western energy security as delivered by Chevron trumps human rights.

I'm sure that the mayhem in Myanmar is being prominently displayed in the Western mainstream media as a ploy to 'soften the population up' for 'humanitarian intervention'... Japan's nearby, and the government is itching to flex it's recreated Imperial military. The occurrence in Myanmar additionally puts the slaughter in Iraq/Afghanistan on page B-18 for a few days while private 'security' contractor kill a few more civilians in circumstances that remind me of nazi waffen-SS lording over vanquished European villages during WWII.

...And don't tell me about the U.N., which has quite proven itself... at least at this juncture in history, to be an obviously formal tool of Western business/geostrategic interests.

The West WILL attempt to intervene whether the people of Myanmar want them to or not because Chevron is the company which controls the petrochemical production in the country and they don't want another situation like Nigeria, Shell, and MEND, with occurrences such as this: "435 miles of Shell Oil pipeline disappear from the Niger Delta"

Point being, what is occurring in Myanmar has to do with Western energy security policy first & foremost, with the human rights for the people of Myanmar being inexorably intertwined AND SECONDARY to that.

Anonymous said...

Meanwhile, the addicts of the world fuel the despots.

Burma in The World Factbook

"remains world's second largest producer of illicit opium with an estimated production in 2005 of 380 metric tons, up 13% from 2004 and cultivation in 2005 was 40,000 hectares, a 10% increase from 2004;"

Given the level of smuggling and the associated level of government corruption that requires, it is unlikely that local governments could do anything even if they wanted to.

"$3.56 billion f.o.b. note: official export figures are grossly underestimated due to the value of timber, gems, narcotics, rice, and other products smuggled to Thailand, China, and Bangladesh"

"$1.98 billion f.o.b. note: import figures are grossly underestimated due to the value of consumer goods, diesel fuel, and other products smuggled in from Thailand, China, Malaysia, and India"

On the other hand, rational illicit drug policies in the G8 countries might significantly reduce demand from their populations and thus the flow of cash into the country.

Anonymous said...

A few opinions I'd like to add to this article:

1) Bloggers have been deemed journalists by American courts. Josh Wolf spend months in prison protecting his video of an anarchist protest in San Francisco. If the Feds want his video, it's because he was doing what journalists do. Bay area journalists voted him the top journalist of the year as he sat in prison.

I agree with the author's position on the feckless and flippant Mainstream Media. The failure to supply hard news and replace it with infotainment has created a massive opportunity for blogs, vlogs, and alternative media. For this reason alone the role journalism plays must be re-examined at a fundamental level. If the MSM can't produce content that's relevant and important, any other source becomes viable, even with the lower journalistic standards typically associated with common blogging.

Point 2: Burma is just beginning, even if the Major Media is moving on. China and the Olympics have been targetted with a boycott. Socially responsible investing priorities are affecting buy and sell decisions. See Burma Campaign UK for a list of offending companies. We can take purposeful action in condemning companies that do business with the regime no matter what the Media does.

International news coverage in American media is woefully inadequate, but Burma stories are appearing daily. Bush is meeting with the Dalai Lama, and his wife Laura is thought to be incensed by the events in Burma.

Now I don't know if the response to the atrocities in Burma will be slow in coming, but something is coming.

Finally, the videos taken are being used by the Burmese government to identify participants, who've been pulled out of their homes and arrested in the past days. See more in's special Burma section: Revolution and oppression.

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