Racism at BBC Burmese, Radio Four's "Beyond Belief" and BBC Complaint Handlers

Racism at BBC Burmese, Radio Four's "Beyond Belief" and BBC Complaint Handlers 

Dated 27 Nov 2013


Following up with the complaint about the BBC Radio Four and BBC Burmese Editor's verifiably anti-Rohingya racism:

"I was told by the BBC complaints website that if I was unsatisfied with the latest of their responses to my complaint first lodged in August 2013 relating to the above mentioned programme, that I should refer the issue to the Editorial Complaints Unit. I remain deeply unsatisfied, shocked and disturbed by the BBC complaints response and procedures thus far, hence referring this complaint to you.

This is the first ever complaint I have made about broadcasting and I have taken it up because of the seriousness and gravity of the impact of negative and inaccurate media portrayals of the Rohingya and Muslim minorities in Myanmar.

The issue of unfounded Islamaphobic fears in Myanmar being presented as fact and presenting the conflict as one of two-equal-sides as opposed to Muslim persecution, ethnic cleansing or genocide has recently come to light since Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments in an interview with the BBC’s Mishal Hussein, in which she claimed that the Buddhist majority in Myanmar had a well-founded fear of the rise of global Islam. These comments which caused outrage around the world were understood to be Islamphobic, as noted by The Telegraph, Myanmar Times and Aljazeera. The reason I bring this reaction to Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments to your attention is because on the Radio 4 programme, “Beyond Belief” the BBC Burmese editor was allowed to present similar and even more outrageously biased claims on Beyond Belief without refute – and presented them as fact as opposed to opinion. This is the subject of my complaint.

It is widely understood that the media, including Burmese language media, is a key contributory factor in the rise of hate-speech and the accompanying violence against Myanmar’s Muslims, including the Rohingya. The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar has called for the Government of Myanmar to stop the spread of anti-Muslim sentiment, hate-speech and violence. The responsibility for stopping the spread of anti-Rohingya sentiment in the overseas Burmese language media, or international media about the Rohingya, does not lie with the Government of Myanmar, but with the bodies that govern editorial content in international contexts, such as yourselves at the Editorial Complaints Unit. For this reason I hope you take the complaint seriously. You may be aware of the central and important role the BBC Burmese language service has played in Myanmar in making unbiased information available to the Burmese public during the 50 years of military dictatorship. It would be a deep shame to tarnish this record with the presentation of state-based and prejudicial information on Muslims in Myanmar in the face of Myanmar’s ethnic-cleansing.

Whilst the situation relating to the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities in Myanmar has been documented by Human Rights Watch as Ethnic Cleansing and by the Sentinel Project for the Prevention of Genocide as impending genocide, thus far the response from the BBC complaints website including from the Producer of the programme have been insulting, offensive and ignorant. Beneath, I include the correspondence between me and the BBC on this issue as well as between Maung Zarni and the BBC (who was interviewed on the programme in question), including his open letter of complaint to Lord Pattern, which can be found on the following web link: 

http://www.maungzarni.net/2013/10/a-public-complaint-to-chris-patten-bbc.html and my own letter providing an detailed rebuttal as to what the programme presented “as fact”. This can be found on the following web link: http://www.maungzarni.net/2013/10/bbc-attempts-to-defend-its-racist.html

The complaint regarding the programme relates to two areas:


Two key issues arise in this category from the programme:

1) Discriminatory language on the grounds of race and religion. Throughout the programme, the terms “Rohingya” and “Bengali” were used interchangeably. 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. Even following my complaint, the Producer of the programme, backing up comments by the BBC Burmese editor who was involved in the discussion in the programme, continued to use the terms Rohingya and Bengali interchangeably. In her response to my complaint Liz Leonard claims that it is “fact” that:
“95% of the population is Rohingyas, or Bengalis there.”[referring to two of the townships of North Rakhine State where the Rohingya are ghettoised and subject to several decades of discrimination and human rights abuses]

This is clearly a racist use of the term “Bengali” used to describe the Rohingya rather than people who would self-identify as Bengali, since 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, killings, enforced disappearances and sexual violence hosts a growing population of “Bengalis”, i.e. immigrants, is frankly preposterous. This comes on top of the fact that the term was also used interchangeably throughout the programme.

The first response quoted above utterly undermines the claim in the second response to my complaint,

“I can assure you that Soe Win Than did not intend to undermine the Rohingya, but instead try to explain the fact that the term Rohingya is not widely recognised in Burma and that the local Burmese population regards the Rohingya population as Bengalis”

Both Soe Win Than and producer Liz Leonard continue to use the two terms interchangeably in the first response to my complaint. Further it was absolutely clear that in the programme the terms were not effectively problematized and were used interchangeably causing considerable offense.

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. The BBC would 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 eyes of the BBC?

2) Factually misleading the audience

Burmese editor Soe Win Than, claimed that violence against Rohingya and Muslims by local populations in Myanmar was a result of a “well-founded” fear of Rohingya population growth. This was backed-up by producer Liz Leonard, who stated, 

“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.”

This is factually 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. 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” http://www.ash.harvard.edu/extension/ash/docs/creating.pdf

In referring to 95% Rohingya areas, Mr Soe Win Than is referring to the townships of North Rakhine State which have majority Rohingya or Rakhine Muslim (over-lapping terms) population–not Bengali. In fact these areas have for centuries had a majority Rohingya population. Since the 1960s the increase in the proportion of Rohingya is not due to in-migration from Bengal as he and Ms Leonard would have us believe but through forced migration under a xenophobic military dictatorship and latterly military-civilian rule. 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 who have been squeezed into geographical pockets, no longer able to survive in areas where they are in the minority. The restrictions in these townships have been compared to “open prisons” and “concentration camps.”

I do not believe the BBC would consider it appropriate to call complaints of Jewish population growth by the residents of areas hosting concentration camps in Nazi Germany “well-founded”, so why would they consider a similar claim appropriate in the case of the Rohingya in Myanmar who are facing ethnic cleansing and genocide?

Whilst in the first response to my complaint relating to “well-founded” fear, the producer Ms Leonard stood by the claim of “well-founded” fear in the programme stating that it was backed up by “facts and figures”(which I refute in my letter to her copied below). In the second response to my complaint I was given a contradictory answer,

“Soe Win Than’s reference to “well –founded fear” should have been attributed to the views of the Rakhine population. It did unfortunately sound as if he felt the fears were well founded, which was not what he meant.”

This is an utterly ridiculous statement. There is only one way for the audience to understand the term “well-founded” in relation to other peoples’ Islamaphobic and racist concerns about population growth – and that is that the person speaking has weighed up the evidence and come to the conclusion based on the evidence that their fears are not perception-based but valid. It is impossible to use the term “well-founded” in relation to others’ perceptions, it is a term that means “justifiable, valid, legitimate, well-grounded, sensible and acceptable”. Further to this ridiculous statement, I was told,

“His knowledge of the views of the local Rakhine population is based on the reports from Burma about the concerns of the local Rakhine population.”

This statement is extremely concerning to two ways. Firstly, if he was only aware of reports from a genocidal local population and not of the more neutral kind, why was he allowed to present these bias prejudicial opinions as fact without anyone available to refute the allegations? Secondly, and more alarmingly, why is an editor of BBC Burmese service not in possession of balanced information on the single most important issue to affect his country in transition– the issue of violence and hate speech against Myanmar’s Muslim population (see recent UNGA resolution on Muslim violence in Myanmar)? Does this not ring alarm bells with the BBC as to what the editorial line of BBC Burmese language broadcasts relating to this issue might be? If not, it should.

In fact throughout the discussion Soe Win Than’s comments presented a bias perspective against the Rohingya. His comments were utterly shocking to all that have a balanced knowledge of the situation for Rohingya in Myanmar. Equally shocking was that the programme did not question these biased perspectives. The reason I have picked out the “well-founded” fear comment rather than others as an example is that it clearly indicates that Soe Win Than was presenting his own views as fact, not simply presenting the perceptions of the Buddhist society in Myanmar.


My original complaint asked the question of why a programme about Buddhist violence against Muslims in Myanmar (the vast majority of those who have suffered violence are Rohingya Muslims) did not include a single Muslim voice. And why no-one was made available who was in a position to refute the un-problematized repetitions of state-based racist and Islamaphobic propaganda that were voiced by the BBC Burmese editor. In the first response to my complaint, producer Ms Leonard claimed,

“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 pointed out that she admitted herself that over half the programme was not about Buddhist scriptures but about violence against Muslims in Myanmar. It is impossible for a programme about Buddhism and non-violence in Myanmar, where ethnic cleansing against Myanmar’s Muslims is taking place to not also be about violence, Islamaphobia and racism (racism is inseparable from Islamaphobia in Myanmar) no matter how much emphasis is given to scriptures. Since the brunt of the violence against Muslims is born by the Rohingya Muslims, of course the violence against them is an integral part of the discussion.

In the second response to my complaint, I was told,

“The second half of the programme highlighted the violent nature of the Buddhist extremists in Burma and it was not about racism and violence against Muslims. We would definitely include a Muslim voice if the programme was to be about racism.” 

I hope that the Editorial Complaints commission find this statement as utterly ridiculous and ignorant as I do. How on earth can a programme intending to highlight the violent nature of Buddhist extremism in Burma (which manifests itself as violence against Muslims including mostly the Rohingya) not be about Islamaphobia, racism and violence!? I just cannot think of a more stupid response that this. I find it utterly insulting and defensive. If you listen to the programme, you will be clear that the programme is about Buddhist violence against Muslims regardless of whether it explores scriptures or not. To claim it is not, is dishonest. As such, it is unfathomable why a Myanmar Muslim voice was not included in the programme. To make it worse, no-one who had a contextual understanding of the issues in Myanmar was made available to refute the BBC Burmese editor’s racist claims.

As I mentioned in my original complaint, it would be entirely unacceptable to broadcast a programme about Islamaphobia or anti-Muslim violence in the UK without including a single Muslim voice. So why does the BBC think it is acceptable to have a programme about violence against Muslims in Myanmar (even if looked at in parts through the lense of deconstructing notions of Buddhism and non-violence) without including a single Muslim voice?


To be clear about what response from the BBC we would be appropriate to this very serious complaint, I would like to highlight the following expected/suggested outcomes.

A) A public apology from the BBC for using the term “Bengali” to refer to the Rohingya population in Myanmar including clarification as to why it is insulting.

B) A public apology for claiming that local Myanmar and Rakhine populations have a “well-founded” fear of Rohingya population growth, with clarification as to why this is factually misleading and biased.

C) An investigation into the editorial line of BBC Burmese language service on the Rohingya crisis including considering the discourse they use in relation to the Rohingya and other Muslims.

Below, I copy the correspondence between myself and BBC complaints for your easy reference and to assist you in understanding the context of the situation relating to the Rohingya and Muslims in Myanmar. If you require any further information, please do not hesitate to get in touch with either myself or Maung Zarni, who is cced. 



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