Since gaining independence from Britain in 1948, Myanmar has experienced decades of economic and political turbulence. Stemming from years of volatile military rule, the Southeast Asian country, formerly known as Burma, has endured countless civil and ethnic conflicts throughout its history.
Despite hopes for a transition towards a more democratic regime following general elections in 2010, military involvement has continued to inundate elected governments.
In February 2021, a smattering of military leaders staged a coup, plunging the country into a new state of chaos. Protests erupted across the nation as civilians demanded the restoration of a democratically elected government. A military crackdown in response to this widespread resistance saw violent attacks against protesters as well as a nationwide media shutdown.
Today, political unrest is rife in Myanmar. Tensions have heightened between the military, known as the Tatmadaw, and the National Unity Government (established by ousted lawmakers), protest leaders and activists. Following violent clashes between the People’s Defence Force, the armed unit of the National Unity Government, and the Tatmadaw, the country has descended into a humanitarian crisis.
With no end in sight for this conflict, it begs the question: why does it appear that the international community has fallen silent?
Many claim that Myanmar’s plight is dropping off the global agenda to make way for the newest international crises filling our front pages. A similar tale can be told of other states that seem to have fallen victim to the world’s short attention span. Ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Syria and East Africa, amongst others, fit the bill.
Myanmar’s geographical position should be considered when deciphering the reluctance of mainstream Western media to feature the conflict in the headlines. Unsurprisingly, long-term news coverage often tackles issues closer to home as these are the stories that readers and listeners tend to engage with more strongly. This rings true when looking at the emergence of a narrative which draws a direct comparison between Myanmar and the events unfolding in Ukraine.
Some indeed point to the global focus on Ukraine as the reason for Myanmar’s fall off the international radar, highlighting that support for Myanmar’s pro-democracy fighters could have a greater impact if they received the same amount of attention as the current Eastern European conflict.
Others argue that drawing such a comparison is futile due to the inherent differences between the two conflicts. In Ukraine, we see the story of an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign state, an event which has not taken place in Europe since the end of the Second World War. On the contrary, in Myanmar, there is no black-and-white depiction of a breach of national sovereignty but instead an amalgamation of intense domestic disputes.
It is this grey area in which the Burmese conflict lies that can also provide a reason for its lack of airtime. In the media, simplicity often takes precedence over complexity, with straightforward narratives portraying a ‘good side’ against a ‘bad side’ taking centre stage. Myanmar falls in a unique position as its current conflict unfolds against the backdrop of deep-rooted historical divisions; there is no clear-cut two-sided tale that can be told. Instead, an oversimplification of the conflict can lead to a misrepresentation of events in which the agendas of individual groups are overlooked, and their actions are not considered in relation to the wider context of Burmese history.
Dictated by an increasingly asymmetric power dynamic, the struggle between the military and resistance groups shows no sign of relenting. Although the prospect of a resolution appears elusive, public support through media coverage akin to that of other conflicts will likely benefit the Burmese people.
Bringing Myanmar’s plight out of the peripheral vision of Western spectators and into dominant discourse is no easy feat. Shining the spotlight on the world’s neglected conflicts requires greater international awareness in the production and consumption of media. But, taking steps to create a more balanced approach towards international affairs enables these forgotten nations to become a part of the wider global struggle for democracy.