MANDALAY — On the night of July 1, I experienced violence at first hand while covering the inter-communal clashes between Buddhists and Muslims that broke out in Burma’s second-biggest city.
When I arrived at the scene of riots in the city center, the police were facing down a hostile mob. A Mandalay-based reporter standing right in front of me tried record the mayhem on his camera. Suddenly a man in a Buddhist monk’s robes—whether he was a real or bogus monk I do not know—shouted angrily at the reporter.
“Why did you take my picture? Delete them now!” he yelled.
I noticed that we were surrounded by more than two dozen angry people. They seized the key of my motorbike. Someone called out that the memory card of the camera should be taken and a man snatched the reporter’s camera from his hands and removed the card.
“Don’t take your time. Just smash it!” someone cried, attempting to grab the camera too. The reporter gave me his camera to keep safe while he searched for his mobile phone, which had fallen on the floor nearby, and men from the crowd tried again to grab the camera, as well as my mobile phone.
Luckily, other people’s intervention saved the camera.
“What is your nationality? Show me your ID card. You must be a Muslim because you took pictures of our side only,” a Buddhist monk told us. “Why don’t you take pictures of the Muslims over there? When people see our pictures, they may think we are bad guys.”
The incident illuminates the difficulties the Burmese journalists face today, especially when covering communal strife. When we report that Muslims are attacked by Buddhists, we are accused of giving Buddhists a bad name. When we break the news that Buddhists have been attacked by Muslims, we are accused of instigating unrest in a country where the majority is Buddhist.
That is not to mention the difficulties of simply gathering the news, which continued. As we were roughly questioned by three men wearing monks’ robes, other young men, who were visibly drunk, wielded sticks and iron rods in our direction, shouting: “No more questions. Beat them up! Smash their heads!”
Again people intervened to calm down the men, appealing that the memory card had already been taken. They gave me my key back and shooed us away. Thankfully, the mob turned its attention to the police.
Although we drove quickly away from the mob, my heart was pounding and I had to keep looking back to make sure we were out of trouble, worried that someone might follow us to hurt us.
I later found out that we were not alone in facing threats. On the night of July 2, another group of journalists faced angry mobs at least twice and were also stopped from taking pictures.
“While we were taking pictures of people rampaging at the corner of 35th and 84th streets, some rioters rushed to us, shouting ‘what the hell are you doing?’ We had to run for our lives,” a photojournalist told me.
“To tell you the truth, I was really scared as they had sticks and swords. Whenever I was confronted with them, all I could think about was to run from them to safety,” another reported.
A video journalist described encountering an angry group of about 10 young men while filming. “They tried to take my camera and they thought I am a Muslim. I explained them several times that I am a Buddhist and I didn’t record anything,” he said.
“I showed my empty camera and later they headed to another place. I was lucky, and I left the area immediately.”
Since violence broke out in Mandalay on the night of July 1, rioting has so far claimed two lives: one Buddhist and one Muslim.
The mob was under the mistaken impression that we were fanning the riots, and we had little protection while trying to do our jobs. While a strict curfew is now in place, the security forces’ efforts to protect journalists covering the early clashes were questionable.
But while they prevented us from taking photographs, those in the crowd were themselves capturing incidents and posting them on Facebook. The exclusion of reporters meant that Burmese social media was dominated by these real-time updates, often from people holding a cell phone in one hand while brandishing a sword in the other. This raises the question: why target the media and accuse us of bias and instigating unrest?
While people involved in the rioting may be using Facebook to fan the unrest, reporters were working to cover the events fairly and accurately.
But Facebook was also filled with posts accusing various media publishing in Burmese and English, including The Irrawaddy, of posting “misinformation” and of “exaggerating the news.” Some even commented calling for people to “kill their reporters!”
On July 4, the day of the funeral of Tun Tun, a Buddhist man allegedly killed by a mob, journalists were again warned not to take pictures of the hundreds who attended.
Once again, abuse was shouted from the crowd. “Hey you, bastard media! Take a picture of us and you will be dead meat,” one person shouted. The crowd photographed the reporters and boasted they had the journalists on camera.
Coverage of the funeral drew more anger on social media, and some spread the message for people to refuse to give interviews, to treat reporters badly and destroy their equipment.
The effect of all this is that some reporters no longer dare go out to cover clashes. When we do, we stay close to the police for some security.
The events of the past week, particularly the night of July 1, have left me fearful, but I will continue to report what is happening in Mandalay. But my question, on behalf of all journalists here, is: “How can we file stories that give the true voices of both sides if people from one side treat us so badly and the other side treats us well?”
I will never forget the red burning eyes of the angry men, the brutal words from those who wore robes and the faces of violence in the angry mob. The nightmare of last week will haunt me, my colleagues and the residents of Mandalay for a long time.