Picking up the pieces

On July 9, Frontier published an article on recent conflict in Kayin State, “Missing pieces on Myanmar’s ceasefire chessboard”.

THE ARTICLE prompted a fierce response, with critics describing it as at best misinformed and naïve, and at worst Tatmadaw propaganda. “You should be given a military rank of some kind by the Myanmar military,” one Facebook user commented.

The response is understandable. The stakes are high; lives are literally at stake. The Hpapun conflict has already claimed the life of a community leader, Saw O Moo, and thousands have been displaced.

These tragedies, though, should not prohibit examination of the facts. For all the condemnation the July 9 article provoked, few if any of those who were upset by it seemed to have a cogent rebuttal, or challenged any of the facts that underpinned it. Instead, much of the criticism was based simply on the fact that the author, analyst Morgan Michaels, questioned the narrative whereby the Tatmadaw was the aggressor and had violated the nationwide ceasefire agreement.

Michaels didn’t even say that this narrative was necessarily incorrect – just that there was information available that suggested an alternative, and that it appeared that some commentators had not considered this information.

This is a perfectly reasonable opinion to posit, and one that on most topics would have created little fuss. But when it involves the Tatmadaw, it seems many believe such an opinion to be heretical.

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Some also questioned why Frontier would publish such an article, even suggesting that we’d sullied our reputation by doing so.

Well, no. In fact, this is exactly the type of commentary we value – we like pieces that challenge the conventional wisdom. We are committed to free and open debate, and believe that’s exactly what our opinion pages are for. We don’t necessarily agree with all of our commentators, but we respect their right to put forward any reasonable argument.

If we were approached with a response to Michaels’s piece, for example, we would have happily considered it for publication. It’s also important to note that Frontier has already published extensively on the Hpapun conflict, including Brennan O’Connor’s excellent on-the-ground reporting, “War returns to Kayin State”.

Sadly, freedom of expression in Myanmar is too often conditional on showing support for a particular viewpoint. We pay lip service to the concept but then promptly shout down or dismiss those who put forward a different view. We support those who agree with us and try to silence those who don’t.

Perhaps this is because freedom of expression is still relatively new to Myanmar, after decades of military rule. For too long, open debate was censored. This in turn prohibited the development of a political culture in which diverse ideas can not only exist but also be debated in a respectful way.

If anything, though, the lack of tolerance has become even more pronounced under the National League for Democracy government. It has repeatedly shown little appetite for dissent. Too often, the government’s attitude seems to be that the only reasonable position is that which echoes its own; anything else is nefarious, designed only to undermine its authority and goals.

But this is not just about the government. On all sides – not least of all the Tatmadaw – there is a lack of consideration given to alternative points of view, particularly the views of those perceived as opponents. This then erodes the trust that Myanmar will need to build in order to overcome its many challenges, including the long-running ethnic conflicts.

Stifling debate is not the answer, even when we dislike what others say, do or write. Understanding and respecting the opinions and perspectives of others will be essential for achieving peace and national reconciliation.

At Frontier, we think we have a role to play. We seek to encourage a culture of positive debate through fact-based reporting, careful analysis and providing space for a range of opinions. That might make readers uncomfortable at times, but we think it’s for the greater good.

Of course, you don’t have to agree with us…

This editorial first appeared in the August 2 issue of Frontier. 

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