Myanmar President Thein Sein on Tuesday urged the media to “responsibly” exercise freedom of expression after Time magazine ran a cover photo story of a radical Buddhist monk as the “Face of Buddhist Terror,” prompting a public outcry.
In a monthly address on state-run radio, Thein Sein discussed public concerns over the controversial July 1 issue of the magazine, which profiled outspoken nationalist monk Wirathu, and asked the media to report on Myanmar in a way that promotes solutions to the country’s problems.
“According to a traditional Burmese saying, people shouldn’t say something if it is not good for others, even if it is right,” the president said.
“When people are making use of the freedom of expression, it should be done in a responsible way in light of Myanmar’s society and Myanmar’s current political situation. It should also be constructive.”
Thein Sein’s speech came as the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar held a workshop on preventing hate speech in the country, during which Ambassador Derek Mitchell discussed how to balance the rights of individual free speech with the rights of society to be free from violence and intimidation.
The Time report referred to Wirathu as comparing himself to a terrorist leader as he wages a "holy war" against Myanmar’s Muslim minority, prompting a public outcry that led to a government ban of the magazine and a mass rally in Yangon on Sunday.
Wirathu, 46, is the leader of the “969” Buddhist movement—which calls on its followers to boycott Muslim businesses and social circles after deadly violence erupted in the middle of last year. He has rejected claims that his group was responsible for the clashes.
“I want to urge Time magazine to take a positive approach that the Burmese people can accept and understand, with ideas that can help to solve problems in Myanmar,” Thein Sein said in his Tuesday radio address.
He said that the report was creating “misconceptions about Buddhism” and instead focused only on the actions of a few individuals who want to “benefit politically and financially” in the name of religion, adding that those who incite hatred in Myanmar would be subject to action according to the law.
He also urged the international media to be considerate of the challenges Myanmar is facing as it transitions from a junta-led dictatorship to a reformist democracy and to avoid “negative” references to the country’s past in reports.
Thein Sein said that his intention “is not to ignore internationally accepted democratic norms,” but to encourage “constructive observations and advice,” he said.
About 200 people have been killed and 140,000 displaced in two waves of sectarian unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Rights groups say that the region’s Muslim Rohingya group bore the brunt of the violence.
Violence between Buddhists and Muslims, who account for some 4 percent of the country’s 60-million population, also spread to communities in central Myanmar’s Meikhtila, near Wirathu’s base, in March and to Shan state in May.
Hate speech workshop
Last week, the U.S. Embassy hosted a workshop in Yangon featuring government officials, religious leaders, and journalists to discuss finding a common ground among the people of Myanmar to advance the country’s goal of implementing a democracy.
In an address to lead off the discussion, Ambassador Mitchell said that citizens in a democracy must not avoid controversy and that censorship “is rarely the answer.”
“What is needed instead is an open national dialogue where all of the diverse voices of Myanmar participate, where speech is free, respectful, peaceful, and different viewpoints compete in a marketplace of ideas, without violence or intimidation,” Mitchell said.
In a democracy, he said, people do not only have the right to speak, but the responsibility to listen.
“And keep your mind open to others’ views, that you may in fact not know the whole truth, that there may be ways to solve problems and bridge differences not speaking at people, but with them,” he said.
But following the event, several participants suggested that media coverage of the communal clashes was fanning the flames of hatred in the country instead of generating healthy discussion about differences in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s deputy minister Ye Htut cautioned that articles such as the one carried in Time were generating so much negative attention that the focus of public anger could easily switch from the media to religion.
“We should be very careful about writing that could be considered incitement,” he said.
Thiha Saw, an editor and speaker at the event, said that even with good intentions, the media must be extremely cautious in how it decides to cover issues in Myanmar.
“The writer of [the Time] article … has been to Myanmar many times and her writing appears to be a kind of hate speech without truly intending to be,” he said.
“We have to be careful about our writing if there is a chance it could lead to clashes, even if we are reporting truthfully and with the best of intentions.”
Others said that hate speech must be curbed in the interest of the common good.
Hargy Aye Lwin, a Muslim speaker, said that eliminating hate speech was “vital” to Myanmar at a sensitive time in its political growth and that preventing the practice was better than finding a future cure for the problems it produced.
“Myanmar is a country where many nationalities and religions live together,” he said.
“These differences are the strength of our country, not a weakness.”
Reported by Ei Ei Khine and Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.