A Public Complaint to Chris Patten: BBC Radio Four Echoes Myanmar's anti-Rohingya Racism

A public complaint Ref. CAS-2274826-2NBV1N

BBC Radio Four and BBC Burmese News Editor for echoing, rather than analyzing, Burma's Anti-Rohingya Racism

Chris Pattern
BBC Trust
180 Great Portland Street
London, W1W 5QZ

Date: 11 October 2013

Dear Lord Pattern,

Greetings from Kuala Lumpur! 

The last time I saw you was at Gareth Evans’ book launch of his“Responsibility to Protect”, at the IISS in 2008.

With Burma now being a ‘R2P concern’, to use Evans’ characterization of my country in his book, I am writing to you in order to publicly register my grave concerns about the racist and professionally sub-standard ways in which the issue of the Rohingya ethnic cleansing and the rise in anti-Muslim violence in Burma was presented on the BBC’s Beyond Faith: Violence and Buddhismbroadcast live at 16:30 hr on 19 Aug 2013, by the two BBC journalists involved in the programme (see the programme here:http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b038c0f6).

My own contribution as a professional researcher and dissident to the live discussion was in the form of a pre-recorded clip, and I was hence in no position to point out, correct or otherwise rebut any verifiably false information which was packaged as ‘expert analysis’ or ‘considered opinion’.

There were a number of issues which were disturbing about the aforementioned Radio Four Burma episode. However, I wish to draw your attention to two most crucial problems in the way in which the radio discussion was organized, the content (information and misinformation) the programme conveyed and the message it sent to millions of British – and international audiences. 

First, the live broadcast publicly reinforced, amplified and rationalized Burma’s popular and state-mobilized anti-Rohingya racism – that there is a “well-founded fear” of Rohingya population growth. In fact, this narrative is simply one side of the same coin the other side of which frames the Rohinga as a threat to local Buddhist Rakhine population and the country’s predominant Buddhism and her national security. During the programme, the twofold issue of the securitization and illegalization of the Rohingya was carried out by none other than the BBC Burmese service editor Mr Soe Win Than, a participant in the live discussion. During the Radio Four’s Burma episode, the BBC Burmese editor was repeating Burmese government’s racist propaganda, and calling the state-mobilized ethno-nationalist fear among the majority Buddhist Burmese "well-founded", without refuting or problematising it.

This empirically false perception of the Rohingya as ‘illegal Bengali’ from the neighbouring Bangladesh is a product of the country’s successive military Governments since the second phase of General Ne Win’s autocratic rule in the late 1970’s. It is also the view the Islamophobic public at large, which generally is exceedingly critically of the Burmese military leaders and the State institution, have embraced at face value out of the country’s popular anti-Muslim racism. 

It is one thing that the Burmese public, which are still reeling from the legacy of half-century of live under an extremely illiberal and racist military leaderships, holding deeply racist worldviews about the entire community of Islam, namely Muslims of Burma and by extension the Rohingya Muslims. However, it is a different matter altogether, when a senior BBC broadcaster who has been with the BBC World Service Burmese Program for more than 10 years, working in the heart of London to approvingly air this popular racism on the BBC’s flagship Radio Four.

Second, on her part, the producer Liz Leonard went on to officially back up her BBC Burmese colleague Soe Win Than’s verifiably false narrative about the Rohiongya peoples, without doing her homework to see if the fellow BBC journalist was presenting the independently-sourced facts or simply reciting the ‘facts and figures’ released by the Government of Myanmar. As you know Burma’s military-controlled government’s reputation rests not on truth-telling but its lies, misinformation and distortions about the country’s budget, ethnic make-up, rape, child soldiers, revenues, political prisoners, and so on. 

Here is the Radio 4’s Beyond Belief producer in her own exact words:

"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."

Both US President Barack Obama and UK’s Speaker of the House of Commons Mr John Bercow chose to address the Rohingya by the latter’s own chosen ethnic identity during their public speeches at Rangoon University in Nov 2012 and July 2013 respectively. In fact, the British Speaker of the House was emphatic when he denounced calling the Rohingya ‘Bengali’ as ‘racist, racist, and racist’. 

The word Bengali is a proud label for many a sons and daughters of the soil of Bengal including the late Rabindranath Tagore, as well as my good Bengali friends Amartya Sen and Gayatri Chakrovorty Gayatri. But, it is used in the Burmese context, as a part of a national discursive strategy to convey falsely the ‘foreignness’ and ‘illegality’ of their cultural and ethnic identity. 

As such, the word Bengali is experienced by the Rohingya as a deeply racist term, providing justification for mis- and inhumane treatment of these people. Various law enforcement agencies including police, police special branch, local security units, and so on have in fact punched, kicked and otherwise inflicted physical pains on the Rohingya who refuse to accept the label ‘Bengali’ as their ethnic identity, according to our interviews with scores of Rohingya refugees in Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Australia, Europe, and USA.

Against this backdrop, my English researcher colleague who listened to the programme live on-line, was so “outraged” by the decidedly racist overtone of Soe Win Than’s intervention in the Burma discussion that she left a formal complaint for the BBC to review at the BBC official website immediately following the live programme’s broadcast on 19 August. (I am attaching her exchange with the BBC herewith).

In fact, she was not alone in her outrage. Professor Geoff Whitty, former Director of the Institute of Education (IOE), U. of London, emailed me the next day when he saw my own negative on-line reaction to the Radio Four’s live program. (As you may know Geoff is the younger brother of your fellow peer Lord Whitty). 

In Geoff’s words: "This was very much my own reaction. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Keep at it!"

Just as the producer Ms Leonard had more than 6-weeks to find a real, authentic Muslim voice, preferably Myanmar Muslim or a Rohingya Muslim – there are plenty of Muslim refugees and migrants in greater London from Burma – , she could easily have done some on-line research in order to fact-check “the well-founded fear” of Rohingya population, before officially, and simply, repeating Soe Win Than’s ‘facts and figures’. BBC Burmese journalist sourced his facts evidently in Burma’s official Rakhine Violence Inquiry Commission, which is widely considered among Burma human rights researchers and country experts as a whitewash.

In fact, there are various, credible and independent sources of demographic statistics pertaining to the Rohingya issues. I am not going to go into details about the population statistics here. My research colleague has provided a detailed rebuttal to Radio Four producer’s professionally incompetent defence of both her Burma episode and her fellow BBC journalist, Mr Soe Win Than. 

In our 3-year joint research, our 2-members team have concluded that Burma’s systematic, inhumane treatment at the hands of successive military governments since Ne Win’s latter years in 1978 is very well in the twin-category of a genocide and an “ethnocide, a cultural variant of genocide”, to borrow an insight offered by Samantha Powers, the Pulitzer Prize winning academic author of “A Message from Hell: America in the Age of Genocides” and now the US Permanent Representative to the UN. 

We are not alone in viewing the persecution of the Rohingya – and now the widening campaign of violence against all Muslims of Burma – through the valid lens of genocide/ethnocide.

One of the foremost scholars in the field of genocide studies Professor Gregory Stanton of George Mason University in Virgina, USA and President of the Genocide Watch, have reached his own professional conclusion – that the Rohingya are undergoing a slow-cooking process of genocide.

We are all aware that neither the ‘great powers’ nor Aung San Suu Kyi are said to have any appetite for calling the 35-years of the Rohingya persecution by its proper name – genocide - for their own divergent reasons. 

I did not and do not expect that the BBC will step in and take up the cause of the Rohingya people. But I did expect the BBC to uphold high journalistic standards, which were clearly spelled out in your BBC Trust official report “A BBC Trust Review of the Breadth of Opinion Reflected in the BBC’s Output (released just last month July 2013; Accessed 20 Aug 2013 http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/our_work/breadth_opinion/breadth_opinion.pdf) . 

My complaint is more than an act of disappointment by a listener and sometime contributor to the BBC programs, including Radio Four. I am gravely concerned that the BBC with its global reach and influence is broadcasting racist views and less-than-factual information which have become a discursive foundation for the state-sponsored ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Rohingya people whom the United Nations quite rightly calls “friendless” and “one of the world’s most vulnerable peoples”.

If the high standards BBC Radio Four is found to be broadcasting verifiably racist program with poorly sourced content then I think it is highly likely that the BBC Burmese Service caters to the millions of anti-Rohingya Burmese viewers with their typically anti-Muslim views may be putting racist slants on its Burma news, discussions and other Burmese language programmes regarding the plight of the Rohingya in particular and the Muslim affairs in general. 

With Burmese editors at the Burmese Service who do not problematize the now world-infamous “Buddhist” racism and who do not care to independently source the Rohingya-relevant ‘facts and figures’ other than the official government reports and pronouncement, I sincerely request an independent evaluation of the BBC World Service Burmese language broadcasts with specific respect to the Rohingya and the anti-Muslim violence since the anti-Rohingya pogroms broke up in June 2012, which left hundreds of mainly Rohingya deaths and over 150,000 Rohingyas displaced.

I genuinely do not think that the British license fee payers and the public at large should be funding programs that verifiably end up reinforcing, amplifying and justifying the framing of the Rohingya as a threat to Burma’s national security, Buddhist face and local ‘races’. For all genocidal acts begin with framing the Cultural and Ethnic Others as ‘an enemy’ ‘an existential threat’, ‘viruses’, ‘snakes’ and so on.

Finally, I am sending copies of this public complaint to the individuals and organizations that have expressed publicly their deep concerns for the Rohingya people.

Thank you very much.

With my warm personal regards,

Maung Zarni
Visiting Fellow, Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, LSE 


  • Amartya Sen, Thomas A. Lamont University Professor, and Professor of Economics and Philosophy, Harvard University & Honorary Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford
  • Geoff Whitty, Professor and former Director, Institute of Education, University of London
  • Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, University Professor, Columbia University, New York
  • Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor, MIT
  • Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)
  • John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, UK
  • Gregory Stanton, Research Professor, George Mason University & President, Genocide Watch
  • William Schabas, Professor of International Law, Middlesex University & National University of Ireland at Galway
  • Desmond Tutu, S. Africa
  • His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibet
  • Sulak Sivaraksa, International Network of Engaged Buddhists
  • Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, former Prime Minister, Malaysia 
  • Youk Chhang, Cambodia Documentation Center
  • Michael Chertoff, Chair, the Committee on Conscience, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and former Secretary of Homeland Security, USA
  • Barack Hussein Obama, US President
  • John Kerry, US Secretary of State
  • Derek Mitchell, US Ambassador to Burma, Rangoon
  • Andrew Patrick, UK Ambassador to Burma, Rangoon


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