Myanmar: Rakhine State's slippery death toll

Soldiers stand guard amid ongoing violence in Sittwe, capital of Myanmar's western state of Rakhine, on June 12, 2012. Officials are attempting to quell a surge of sectarian violence in Myanmar as international pressure grows for an end to the bloodshed.
Credit: AFP

Full-on martial law in Myanmar's coastal Rakhine State has so far failed to quell a wave of arson and killings pitting a stateless Muslim minority, the Rohingya, against the Rakhine people.

But just how bad is it? The degree of violence -- measured in lives lost -- is proving extremely difficult to measure.

One heavily circulated figure is "dozens," a number reported by Agence-France Presse. That figure is attributed to an anonymous senior official who, we can presume, has an incentive to play down the violence.

And by AFP's own admission, it doesn't include 10 bus passengers killed by a "Buddhist mob in apparent revenge for the rape and murder of a woman, which sparked the violence in Rakhine." Nor does it factor in four new deaths this morning reported by a Myanmar-based outlet, Eleven Media Group.

There are a number of reasons why reliable figures will continue to prove elusive. Many of them stem from Myanmar's long history as an autocratic, locked-down state.

Despite Myanmar's much-heralded opening up to the world, reporting inside the country remains tricky. Major Western outlets are still hustling to open proper bureaus inside Myanmar. Most rely on local journalists feeding intel to bureaus based elsewhere in Asia. Legit media visas are typically issued for high-profile events (a recent election, a visiting diplomat) and offer foreign journalists only a week (or less) inside the country.

All that is complicated by a state of emergency declared in Rakhine State. (A lawmaker tells Reuters that the area is like a "war zone.")

Groups such as Human Rights Watch are pushing for more access. Said Elaine Pearson, a deputy Asia director with Human Rights Watch: “Opening the area to independent international observers would put all sides on notice that they were being closely watched.”

Many Buddhist Burmese, the country's dominant ethnic group, insist locals are falling prey to marauding "terrorists" bent on breaking off their own state via insurrection.

More independent observers would help sort out the facts from the angry rhetoric. And they just might come closer to figuring out how many lives have been lost in this turmoil.

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