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    BBC attempts to defend its racist programming on the Rohingya

    ———- Forwarded message ———-


    Date: 7 October 2013 22:53

    Subject: BBC Complaints – Case number CAS-2274826-2NBV1N

    To: XXX

    Dear Ms XXX

    Reference CAS-2274826-2NBV1N

    Thank you for getting in touch and please accept our sincerest apologies for our delay in responding to your concerns about the edition of ‘Beyond Belief’ broadcast on 19th August.

    The BBC takes all complaints seriously and so we passed them on to producer Liz Leonard who said:

    “Whilst the programme did refer to the Burmese Rohingyas, they were not its focus. Its purpose was to examine Buddhism and non-violence, using the example of what is happening in Myanmar. Until the very end of the first half, the discussion in the opening part of the programme was solely about whether violence is permitted in Buddhism generally.

    I would not agree that the discussion on the violence in the second half was ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobic’ against Rohingyas. In fact, I would say it was completely the opposite of that. Instead it highlighted the violent nature of the Buddhist 969 movement and the challenge that this movement poses, not just in Myanmar but across the world.

    It is also worth pointing out the interview with the Burmese human rights activist. They talked about Human Rights Watch’s report on ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas – along with the state and the Buddhist monk Wirathu’s role in inflaming Islamophobic feeling. This was expanded on in the second half of the discussion.

    Soe Win Than’s comments about Rohingya Muslims were all commentary on the situation in the country, backed up with figures and were discussion of the position of the state and people, rather than his own views. For example, when he says “well-founded fear” he is referring to figures about Rakhine townships and that “originally there were more Rakhine people but now 95% of the population is Rohingyas, or Bengalis there.”

    I do recognise though, that with some of his comments it may not have been completely clear that he was not providing his personal opinion, so I am sorry for any ambiguity.

    I would like to thank you for contacting us and I hope that what I have written reassures you about our programme.”

    Once again, I do apologise for how long it has taken for us to respond to you.

    Kind Regards

    Nicola Maguire

    BBC Complaints


    From: XXXX 

    Sent: Tuesday, October 08, 2013 7:25 AM


    Cc: Miriam Williamson; Shariffa Abdulrehman;; Zarni,M;

    Subject: Re: Taking the following complaint forwards. Case number CAS-2274826-2NBV1N

    Please forward the following to Nicola Maguire. Clearly the online forms have negligible impact.

    On 8 October 2013 14:19, XXX wrote:

    Dear Nicola Maguire and Liz Leonard,

    I find your response to this complaint completely irresponsible and outrageous, as the programme is likely in breach of article 2 and 5 of the broadcasting codes. I have cced the human rights defender – Dr Maung Zarni- whose voice was included in the programme. He shares my considerable concerns on this inflammatory issue. He has read your response and is planning to take the issue up publicly and with key public figures in his network. I have also cced some others involved in the making of this programme.

    The following comment of Liz Leonard and Mr Soe Win Than is absolutely outrageous:

    For example, when he says “well-founded fear” he is referring to figures about Rakhine townships and that “originally there were more Rakhine people but now 95% of the population is Rohingyas, or Bengalis there.

    The characterisation of the Rohingya in North Rakhine State as “Bengali” is racist – and the characterisation of fears over perceived population growth as being “well-founded” is factually incorrect and construing it as such, is also racist. These claims – or “facts” as Ms Leonard calls them- are a deliberate misconstruing on the Rohingyas’ history in Rakhine State by an ethnocidal state that has, over 35 years, systematically erased the history and identity of the bulk of the Muslim or Rohingya population who have roots going back centuries in Rakhine State. This was repeated by a BBC Burmese editor and is now backed up by a Radio 4 producer.

    Let me briefly explain why using the word Rohingya and Bengali is racist –given that the BBC is clearly unprepared to consider how this could be considered inflammatory and insulting. In a speech at Yangon University in August this year, UK Speaker of the House Rt Hon John Bercow responded to a question from the floor asking why he did not refer to the Rohingya as Bengali by unequivocally stating that categorising people who identified as Rohingya as Bengali against their will was “hurtful” and “racist”. ( Rt Hon John Bercow, speech at Yangon University, Myanmar, 1 August 2013. Notes from the speech available on (Accessed 11/09/2013). Q&A available on youtube 11/09/2013) ) What a pity the BBC cannot follow the same principles as John Bercow! Rohingya is a term that means Muslim indigenous to Rakhine State – Bengali is a label imposed by the State and by hostile populations on to the Rohingya or Rakhine Muslims with the purpose of marking them out as outsiders and racial “others” – a process that is part and parcel of denying them their fundamental rights, including their right to nationality, and ostracising them from the rest of society.

    There is a reason why in the UK we respect people’s right to self-identify – so that we do not insult people racially or discriminate against people. We do not call, for example, someone who identifies as black British “African” against their wishes because it could be racist and insulting. And we certainly would not do so if that person had roots in the UK going back centuries. Why is the same code of conduct regarding self-identification – also used by the UN- not applicable to the Rohingya in the BBC’s eyes?

    In the case of the Rohingya talking about areas that are 95% Rohingya, Mr Soe Win Than must be referring to the three townships of North Rakhine State – in which stateless Rohingya are contained with limited rights and limited movement – unless of course he is referring to the camps for internally displaced persons that serve to segregate Muslim populations since the violence of 2012!- To insinuate that within this area, that has a massive presence of security forces that regularly conduct household checks against family lists, often resulting is arbitrary detention, torture and extortion, hosts a growing population of “Bengalis”, i.e. immigrants, is frankly preposterous. If you have any doubts as to whether I am exaggerating on the surveillance and conditions in North Rakhine State – or the fact that they are not Bengali- perhaps I can refer you to the growing body of work on human rights abuses, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing against Rohingya in Rakhine State. Please note that all of these reports problematize the issue of characterising the Rohingya as Bengali and illegal immigrants as part of the broader process of violating their rights.

    Human Rights Watch on ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity

    NUI, University of Galway on crimes against humanity

    Perhaps a good place to start for Ms Leonard, would be the sentinel report on the risk of genocide that finds the forced registration of the Rohingya as Bengali could lead to “death lists”. I hope you are starting to understand the importance not referring to the Rohingya as Bengali immigrants!

    As to the characterisation of “well-founded” fears of population growth because some pockets of Rakhine State are 95% Rohingya – this is both factually incorrect and misleading. Rakhine State as a whole is roughly 30% Muslim today – as it has always been since records began. See for example the Paton, C. Sub-Commisioner of Arakan, April 26, 1826, A Short Report on Arakan P36, which notes that at the very start of the colonial period, a third of the population in Rakhine State was Muslim. There are many other sources – please feel free to come back to me if you require more. In a major study and analysis of the available post-independence data, David Dapice and Nguyen Xuan Thanh of Harvard University conclude that there is: no evidence of large post-1950 migratory flows into Rakhine – indeed both the official data and information on income and poverty would suggest the opposite…the official data tells a story of net outflows and dwindling numbers of “Pakistani”(Bengali) foreigners. P 22 Dapice, D and Nguyen, x. t., 2013, Creating a Future: Using Natural Resources for New Federalism and Unity, prepared for proximity designs, Harvard Kennedy School.

    In referring to 95% Rohingya areas, Mr Soe Win Than is referring to the three townships of North Rakhine State which have majority Rohingya or Rakhine Muslim population–not Bengali. In fact these areas have for centuries had a majority Rohingya population. (The terms Rakhine Muslim and Rohingya are overlapping, in part due to the lack of State recognition of either Rakhine Muslim or Rohingya as a basis for denying them their fundamental rights including the right to nationality.) After the return of war refugees into Rakhine State following the Japanese occupation in World War II, Rakhine Muslim populations became more concentrated in the North and Rakhine Buddhists in the South, due to the conflict between the communities intensified by the war. By the 1960s, these townships, known as May Yu district, were administered directly from central government in acknowledgement that the population was majority Muslim in the interests of “peace” and “equality”. The Encyclopaedia of Myanmar, which is an official state publication, published in 1964 (p90 Vol 9) described the district of Mayu as such, “The majority of the population (75%) are Rohingya ethnic people.” Since the 1960s the increase in the proportion of Rohingya is not due to in-migration from Bengal as the BBC would have us believe (or Soe Win Than’s “backing up with figures” – perhaps he or Ms Leonard could site some credible non-state sources?) but through forced migration under a xenophobic military dictatorship and latterly military-civilian rule. That is land confiscations by the state for the building of military barracks and Buddhist model villages associated with extensive human rights abuses (see NUI Galway report), through the forced migration of two large waves of 200,000 plus Rohingya to Bangladesh in 1978 and 1992 (as well as a steady outflow of the population over the past several decades) followed by the involuntary repatriation and relocation to North Rakhine State, and lastly through the violence and economic and social boycotts that Rohingya have suffered more recently that leaves them at risk in minority communities and forcing them to leave flee to majority Muslim areas, IDP camps, or out of the country. Thus the areas that are majority Rohingya – not Bengali- do not represent a “well-founded” demographic threat to the Rakhine, but a deliberate system of segregation, apartheid (as Bishop Desmond Tutu put it) and ghettoization of the Rohingya population.

    I do not accept that Soe Win Than was simply relating the views of the population in Rakhine State – if so he would have problematized these “views” by presenting the many facts available. Added to which, there was no Muslim (or Human Rights Defender) available to refute or problematize these claims that the Rohingya are Bengali migrants that present a demographic threat to the population. As such the programme backed up racist state discourses and lent them a legitimacy that they should not be given under the current extremely sensitive circumstances. You may be aware that currently new waves of anti-Muslim violence are hitting Rakhine State and Myanmar – against full citizens of Myanmar. Testament- if any were needed- to the fact that claims that immigration fuels violence are utter rubbish.

    As to Ms Leonard’s point that,

    Whilst the programme did refer to the Burmese Rohingyas, they were not its focus. Its purpose was to examine Buddhism and non-violence, using the example of what is happening in Myanmar. Until the very end of the first half, the discussion in the opening part of the programme was solely about whether violence is permitted in Buddhism generally.

    May I point out that she has admitted herself that over half the programme was not about Buddhist scriptures but about racism and violence against Muslims in Myanmar, hence the inclusion of a human rights defender – who was not made available to refute the repetition of racist state propaganda by Soe Win Than – and Mr Soe Win Than who has no expertise in Buddhist scriptures beyond being a Buddhist himself. Rohingyas and “Bengalis” were referred to throughout the programme as they have borne the brunt of most of the violence. This lengthy discussion on violence against Muslims and Rohingya, which are part and parcel of the same thing, necessitates at least one Muslim voice in this day and age – surely! As such it is unacceptably biased.

    As to your inclusion of the Human Rights Defender, Dr Maung Zarni, I think it would be fair to say that he was also outraged by set up of the programme which allowed the Rohingya to be portrayed as an Bengali immigration problem without refute – and with Mr Soe Win Than’s comments. There was also outrage registered on Dr Maung Zarni’s social media sites – such as this one an Open Society Institute human rights worker,

    Regarding the program on Buddhism and violence: that was disgraceful journalism. You took as fact what your guest Soe Than said about the “Rohingya,” who apparently don’t exist as a people to him or to your host who blithely says they are Bengali migrants during one segment. I expect a great deal more of the BBC. This is a hugely sensitive issue, and you need to get your facts right. It’s a shame that this program did not really delve into the violence being perpetrated by Buddhists in Burma and what that means for Burma and a religion founded (at least) on compassion and kindness.

    And this one by a retired-director of one of the London Universities,

    This was very much my own reaction. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Keep at it!

    It is really important that the ways in which racist discourse against the Rohingya has become normalised, including in international media, is challenged as it is a foundation stone of the discrimination against them, which makes them “one of the most vulnerable groups in the world” (according to the UN.) I resent that the BBC is so dismissive of this issue. If one of the editors of BBC Burmese is able to repeat such racist propaganda without problematizing it, do you stop to wonder what they may be broadcasting in Burmese language? The Burmese language media is rife with hate-speech, as the BBC should know from their own experience of including Rohingya on a map of Myanmar. The BBC should be investigating the editorial line of BBC Burmese language service, not offering lackadaisical excuses for to their lazy reporting that serves to propagate ethnocidal discourses. As Dr Maung Zarni has pointed out, the programme producers had months in which to find a Rohingya or Myanmar Muslim speaker and they could have asked him at any point to recommend one.

    I believe the BBC in getting their history and facts wrong and nonchalantly echoing the term “Benagali” without problematizing it, as though it is a legitimate term to refer to the Rohingya, is breaking the broadcasting code in the following areas: section 2 – Harm and Offense and Section 5 – Due impartiality and due accuracy and undue prominence of views and opinions. If the BBC complaints procedure is unable to address such an important issue with the seriousness it deserves, then I believe we – myself and Dr Maung Zarni – need to explore other avenues. It should not be left to stand. Whilst the listenership of Beyond Belief may not be huge, the international interest in the role of the media in social and state dimensions of racism in contemporary Myanmar is great. This matter should be addressed internally within the BBC.

    If you require any further factual corrections please let either Dr Maung Zarni or myself know.



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