Awfulness about the use of mobile phones in poverty areas: Reported from Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, Myanmar (Burma)

K L

 Earlier in 2017, conflicts erupted again in villages near Bangladesh, and the conflicts have resulted in forcing over 500,000 (estimated) Rohingya persons, who are followers of Islam, to become refugees in Bangladesh.  In fact, I witnessed many such refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh during my recent trip to the region.

 While AHAN Nippon Kan has remained and will ever remain to be in a position to focus on providing humanitarian support activities, there is something that I’ve been deeply concerned with.

 When I visited Sittwe in 2014, similar conflicts had erupted in the region. And I witnessed 6 burned corpses without arms or legs placed in crudely made coffins; and black spots on the corpses were clumps of flies.  They were the corpses of Buddhist monks who had been slaughtered, and they were abandoned in public in the crude coffins to be shown to Buddhist followers.

 While I still have video clips and still images from the 2014 trip, I learned later that some information of those tragic incidents found on the web as well as social networking sites had become quite exaggerated and seemingly out of proportion to what I had witnessed firsthand.

 I have witnessed numerous individuals with their mobile phones to express and emit their highly emotionally charged comments filled with hatred and prejudice, “as if only to raise the level of misery and cruelty” by propagating a sense of hatred and prejudice by competing with one another in a way that was like showing off one’s baseball card collections against others.  When images of a group of refugees taken by complete strangers to one another can be edited to be one image file by yet another complete stranger and such a second-handedly edited image can be re-distributed on the Internet with a click of a button in a split second, I think we face a “crisis” in transmission of information that the world has never seen or experienced.

 Even poor Rohingya families have mobile phones, and these people seem to have a tendency to “absolutely believe everything” they see and hear through their mobile phones, perhaps partly because a mobile phone is quite a technology and an amenity of the modern civilization, especially given their education level and the environment in which they live that probably do not allow them other means to get the news to digest objectively floods of information from the world.  Moreover, there is a number of people in the region who are illiterate or who only know their native language, and they can still see images and video clips on their smart phones to form their own interpretations, regardless of however incorrect, irrelevant or outright wrong their interpretations might be.  As they still would not understand news if it were written, having access to still images and video clips have given them reasons to fear, perhaps sometimes illegitimately as they probably don’t understand the contexts of images they see.

 When the context of an issue is cut-off, ignored, abbreviated or removed while only the narrative of what is actually happening is reported and widely shared and distributed, it seems to propagate a sense of fear and hatred in people and make it worse.  Such a trend seems to be preventing any opportunity for anybody to “ponder about the core, essential part of the issue” or “discuss candidly” to pursue a truth by spreading one image and/or one misspoken word so instantaneously throughout the world, and it seems to alter even an issue that could be resolved unresolvable.  And we witness such a trend all too frequently nowadays every time a chain of outrage grows uncontrollably on the Internet.

 While the issues with refugees are in most cases understood as issues of religious conflicts or of tribal conflicts and while such understanding usually prompts intervention by the governments of concerned nations and by religiously affiliated NGOs, there might be some effectiveness in setting up a special institution made up of psychologists, scholars in marketing theories, subject matter experts in social networking and experts from seemingly unrelated yet seemingly useful areas of studies to quarantine the quality of information to the general public.  While of course freedom of speech and freedom of the press must be protected, freedoms can be enjoyed by us when we are alive and our wellbeing is ensured.  Given the dire situation many Rohingya refugees have been under, it might be that certain measures, which would aim at saving lives and ensuring the wellbeing of refugees, should be allowed, even if such measures may transcend the boundary of laws, so long as such measures are carried out under the monitoring of an international institution.

 Historically, common ways for Rohingya people to get out of poverty or discrimination included giving up oneself to human trafficking or hiring human smugglers to be brought into neighboring countries like Thailand, Malaysia or Singapore to be identified as refugees by the United Nations to settle into a new place.  In the recent years, however, the neighboring countries have tightened their security protocols and implemented crackdowns on such illegal maneuvers.  This has prompted people in poverty and under discrimination to flee by crossing the border into Bangladesh for free, i.e. without paying anyone, to be identified as refugees by the United Nations or religiously affiliated NGOs on the other side of the border in Bangladesh, to be eventually admitted into one of refugee hosting countries in the world.  Although this change in the method to flee the impoverished and discriminated state of being is not reported by main news media, I have been shown by local staffs on their smart phones several articles about such a new method to be identified as a refugee for free.  I was even told that there were even “coordinators” among refugees that helped others to cross the border and be identified as refugees for a fee.  I wish support organizations to have a good grasp of such reality.

 In my opinion, the core of the conflicts seen in the region is attributed to neither historical, political, tribal nor religious causes.  I rather think it’s attributed to poverty and discrimination against the poor, and the sense of guilt people still have in themselves for the poor and the discrimination against the poor may be directing the general public to use politics, tribal differences and religious differences as scapegoats.  Perhaps, both Buddhist and Muslims may need to be more open to the world and see the world as it is, instead of being persistent with their own rather closed nationalistic view of the world.  Myanmar has seen tremendous economic growths in the recent years, and many people have been enjoying economic prosperity that had not been even imaginable only a few years ago.  On the other hand, the disparity between the rich and the poor, the haves and have-nots seems to be growing bigger.  When an estimated over 500,000 persons are fleeing from their own nation and when such a situation is only seen through a lens of “discrimination”, other countries that are paying close attention to how the situation is to be addressed would not be easily convinced, and the economic prosperity that that country has seen and enjoyed might be overshadowed by the lackluster approach to the humanitarian crisis.

AHAN Nippon Kan

Gaku Homma

Founder & Kancho

Note: Sittwe is pronounced site-tway in the Rakhine language.