As the pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi mounts over her handling of the Rohingya crisis, it is worth looking into whether the story is being properly told. There is clearly a marked distance between emotive and simplistic portrayals of this critical situation and an informative contouring of its landscape. It seems many are failing to ensure the distance is bridged.
Images of violence and apparent ethnic cleansing, by now stock presentations of the Rohingya crisis, while often legitimate, do little in themselves to provide a working cognitive landscape in which to anchor policy action, advocacy or even understanding.
This is a state of affairs that does little to help the hapless Rohingya.
But the messaging problem goes deeper than this. Perhaps the most glaring example of the simplification of the Rohingya story is in reporting on the role of the Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.
On a Google survey this week, stories exploring her role, inaction, statements or politics in relation to the crackdown on Rohingya in Myanmar’s west, ranked as approximately one-tenth of the total on the Rohingya topic.
This coverage is at odds with her position, which is largely powerless, at least in formal terms, in relation to the Rohingya. Offering — usually harsh — judgements on her role, acts as something of a diversion from a true understanding of the situation. It’s a kind of reverse cult of personality, obliging The Lady to answer to all Myanmar’s ills.
On the surface, as Myanmar’s nominal head of government, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner has been a disappointment. Her inability and/or unwillingness to speak up for the persecuted Rohingya is just one very prominent example of Aung San Suu Kyi’s apparent decision to sacrifice social justice for domestic political agendas.
The fact one of the world’s most vaunted and hitherto inspirational human rights activists has turned out to be just another politician is certainly sobering. Even so, there is scant evidence she is behind any decision to initiate the Rohingya crackdown. Nor is there any sense she is pushing its continuation.
But the bottom line is that the Rohingya issue is a lose-lose for Suu Kyi, a fact well utilised by the military rulers.
But some are prepared to make outright errors in the rush to condemn and to cast Aung San Suu Kyi as part of the problem, as evident in the outcry recently over an apparent statement by Suu Kyi to Turkish President Recep Erdogan.
The statement, which is not actually from her, but is via her office’s Facebook page, actually does not quote her as saying much at all.
The statement does paraphrase her, saying, “terrorism (in Myanmar) is new but the Government will do its best to make sure that this does not expand and spread all over Rakhine”.
Another important point made in this statement refers to an “iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists”.
Reading between the lines, something worth doing given Suu Kyi’s constrained position — these statements might refer to either the work of Rohingya activists, Buddhist ginger groups and/or the Myanmar military. Or all of them.
Moreover, as anyone who has worked in political communications, or has even observed how it works, the distance between what’s actually said and what’s released to the public is often vast.
Indeed, those who have worked closely with the National League for Democracy, and with Suu Kyi’s office, know that it can be clunky and amateurish in its communications.
I would suggest this statement is at best veiled, and at worst, inconclusive.
While it would be foolish to ignore Suu Kyi’s potential influence, or to fail to scrutinise her actions on the Rohingya, it would be wise to at least balance this by throwing a spotlight onto those ultimately responsible for the Rohingya crisis — such as government ministers Ye Aung, Sein Win and Kyaw Swe, Defence Chief Min Aung Hlaing, or the pseudo-Buddhist rabble-rouser Ashin Wirathu.
These figures are largely off the hook in terms of international attention.
The Rohingya crisis in Myanmar is awfully real.
But it is complex, multi-faceted and in need of informed and detailed coverage. Any solution needs to begin by focusing on the actual political landscape.
There are many, rightly, who are keen to help and who feel the international community and the Myanmar government — indeed, including Aung San Suu Kyi — must do more to stop the violence.
But we are not always getting the full story, which is often snagged on shorthand versions of it, epitomised by the counter-productive interest in the mutterings of Suu Kyi.
This only serves the interests of the military leaders of Myanmar.
*Between 2007-2010, James Rose was global media adviser for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (made up of exiled, mainly NLD, MPs from the annulled 1990 Burma election), currently runs a charity working with Rohingya refugees in Malaysia and is a tutor in journalism at Griffith University.