29 October 2014

An analysis of New Zealand media coverage of Myanmar/Burma

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One of the more controversial moves undertaken by the military regime was to change the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar. Image: InsideTheTravelLab

Craig Hoyle: RESEARCH: Myanmar or Burma? It's a debate that has continued for several decades. For many organisations and media outlets, the use of one or the other reflects political beliefs.

Abstract: Myanmar is a Southeast Asian nation with a population of around 51 million. It was previously a British colony known as Burma, and became independent following the Second World War. A military junta has ruled the country since 1962, and international isolation has seen it become one of the poorest nations in the world. One controversial move undertaken by the military rulers was to change the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar in 1989. The name change has divided the international community, with nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom refusing to recognise the military junta’s right to make the change. Usage of either name is taken to denote political sympathies. There has been substantial interest in Myanmar/Burma in the New Zealand media, but no clear agreement on what the country should be called. This paper will analyse New Zealand media coverage using five major news outlets as a cross-section.

Myanmar or Burma? It’s a debate that has continued for several decades. For many organisations and media outlets, the use of one name or the other reflects political beliefs. This report will examine how those political beliefs are reflected in media coverage of Myanmar/Burma in New Zealand, using five major news outlets as case studies. It will explore the reasons behind the choices made by each of the media, and critically examine how they have covered the issue. It will also discuss where each media outlet fits within the Four Worlds news values matrix, which breaks down media organisations into First World, Second World, Third World and Fourth World (Robie, 2014). (See full matrix.)

Historical context
Following World War II, Burma negotiated independence from Britain under the leadership of General Aung San. Aung San was assassinated with a number of cabinet ministers in 1947, and in 1962 the military tool control of Burma through a coup d’état led by General Ne Win (Houtman, 1999). Under military leadership, the country went from being one of Asia’s most prosperous regions to one of the most impoverished in the world (Myint-U, 2006).

The Burmese people have vigorously protested military rule. During farcical elections in 1990 the National League for Democracy (NLD) won an overwhelming majority under Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San. However, the military refused to cede power (Khin Kyaw Han, 2003). Buddhist monks launched what became known as the Saffron Revolution in 2007, leading to further harsh government crackdowns that drew international condemnation (Fink, 2009).

A constitutional referendum was held by the military regime in 2008, with the goal of creating a “discipline-flourishing” democracy (Marshall, 2011). From 2011 the military junta was dissolved, with senior army figures moving into the Union Solidarity and Development Party under President Thein Sein (BBC, 2011). Reforms have included the release of hundreds of political prisoners, the enacting of human rights legislation, and increased media freedom (Loyn, 2011). Full democratic elections are planned for 2015.

Naming controversy
One of the more controversial moves undertaken by the military regime was to change the name of the country. The previous name, Burma, had been in use since the 19th century, and was derived from the country’s major ethnic group – the “Bamars” (Dittmer, 2010). In 1989 the State Law and Order Restoration Council passed the Adaption of Expressions Law, formally renaming the nation Myanmar (Steinberg, 2001). According to anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman, Myanmar is a more formal, literary version of the name (BBC, 2007).

International reaction to the name change was mixed. It was rejected by nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom, which questioned its legitimacy (Dittmer, 2010). Others such as China and India accepted the name change, as did the United Nations (United Nations, 2014). However many within the nation itself refuse to refer to their country as Myanmar, believing it legitimises the military regime. Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has stated on numerous occasions that her homeland should still be called Burma (3 News, 23 November 2012).

Steinberg (2001) states that a person’s use of either term denotes political beliefs, and can be used as an indicator of whether they support the military regime or the pro-democracy movement. The European Union is among many who attempt to skirt this divide, referring to the nation as Myanmar/Burma. US President Barack Obama took a similar tack when he visited in 2010, using Myanmar when meeting with state officials, and Burma when meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi (3 News, 19 November 2012a).

New Zealand media coverage
This division is apparent within the mainstream media in New Zealand. Searches made using the websites of five major news outlets – ONE News, 3 News, Fairfax, Radio NZ, and the New Zealand Herald – reveal that both Myanmar and Burma have been used to refer to the Southeast Asian nation. (See Figure 1.) None of the websites permitted searching by dates, although most stories appeared from 2008 onwards. This is in line with work conducted by the Pew Research Centre suggesting digital journalism rose to prominence around 2008 (The Economist, 2009).

Figure 1: NZ media references to Myanmar/Burma

As Figure 1 shows, there was a total of 3409 references to Myanmar, and 2584 references to Burma. All media outlets used both names, although Fairfax, ONE News and Radio NZ were more likely to use Myanmar. 3 News was more likely to use Burma, and the New Zealand Herald appeared to use the two interchangeably. The following section will examine the media outlets individually, and critically analyse their coverage of Myanmar/Burma. (1)

Radio New Zealand
Radio New Zealand’s official style is to refer to the nation as Myanmar. The name is used 505 times throughout the website, with headlines such as the following:

“Ban mooted on inter-faith marriage in Myanmar” (Radio NZ, 6 July 2013)

“World Bank resumes lending to Myanmar” (Radio NZ, 27 January 2014)

                 “Myanmar praises settlement system” (Radio NZ, 22 May 2014)

The name Burma also appears 226 times on the Radio NZ website, although most of these appear to be references to the country’s former name. A member of the international news team confirmed this in a telephone conversation, stating the broadcaster’s policy was to use the phrase “Myanmar, formerly known as Burma” at the first mention in a story, and Myanmar thereafter (Radio NZ, 6 October 2014). This appears to be relatively consistent, with phrases being used such as:

“Myanmar, which is also known as Burma…” (Radio NZ, 6 July 2013)

“Sustainable education for the people and particularly the children of the Shan State in Myanmar/Burma…” (Radio NZ, 17 April 2014)

“Peter Day travels to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma…” (Radio NZ, 29 September 2014)

However, this usage appears to slip in stories that focus on something other than the nation itself. In these stories, it is referred to simply as Myanmar, for example:

“A court in Myanmar has sentenced 23 people to prison…” (Radio NZ, 12 July 2013)

“Myanmar’s president has indicated he would support changes…” (Radio NZ, 3 January 2014)

Radio NZ’s coverage of Myanmar can be described as First World when applied to the Four Worlds news values matrix proposed by Robie (2014). First World media organisations operate with detached objectivity, and this is reflected within Radio NZ. It refers to Myanmar in neutral terms, offering its audience news that focuses on timeliness and relevance. Its official policy is to use both Myanmar and Burma within stories, although results appear to suggest that between the two it favours the former.

ONE News
ONE News had the least coverage of any of the examined news outlets. There are 200 references to Myanmar, and 114 references to Burma. Most headlines refer to the country as Myanmar, for example:

 “Myanmar democracy icon challenges powerful army” (ONE News, 18 May 2014)

 “UN appalled at suffering in Myanmar’s Muslim camps” (ONE News, 18 June 2014)

“Ex-Myanmar beauty queen accused of stealing crown” (ONE News, 29 August 2014)

However, in stories that refer indirectly to the nation, there are a number of instances where it is instead referred to as Burma. For instance:

“More than 3000 refugees from Burma – mostly from the Karen minority – live at the camp.” (ONE News, 23 March 2013)

“Thai police say two men from Burma have confessed to killing a pair of British holidaymakers…” (ONE News, 3 October 2014)

This variance seems to be influenced largely by the various sources from which ONE News obtains its international news. Wires from AAP refer to Burma, and wires from the Associated Press refer to Myanmar. ONE News is also affiliated with the BBC, and stories that refer to the BBC on ONE News’ website use Burma. An example of this is the debate over alleged racism against Asians in an episode of Top Gear (ONE News, 29 July 2014).

There appears to be confusion within ONE News over what the broadcaster’s official usage is. A television producer confirmed via a telephone call that their style was to use Myanmar (TVNZ, 7 October 2014a). In a subsequent email from an online producer, it was said that the ONE News style was to use Burma, and on first mention insert the phrase “also known as Myanmar” (TVNZ, 7 October 2014b). However no instances of this usage could be found on the ONE News website.

In general, ONE News’ coverage of Myanmar/Burma appears detached, as though it is reporting on a location that is unusual and outside the norm. News articles centre on important places and events, and there does not appear to be any effort to engage on a meaningful level with the issues and challenges faced by Myanmar/Burma as it moves towards democracy. These factors mean ONE News’ coverage can be described as First World within the Four Worlds news values matrix (Robie, 2014).

Fairfax had the most coverage by a considerable margin, with 1380 references to Myanmar and 792 to Burma. This reflects Fairfax’s role as not just one media outlet, but a conglomeration of dozens of different newspapers and magazines (Fairfax, n.d.). Most references to Burma appear to be from 2012 or earlier, for example:

                “First Burma visit for UN chief” (Fairfax, 30 April 2012)

“The Lady rolls the dice to advance aims in Burma” (Fairfax, 24 November 2011)

A member of the Fairfax news team stated in a telephone conversation that the official style was changed around the same time as the New Zealand government also changed its style - coinciding with Prime Minister John Key’s first official visit in 2012 (Fairfax, 8 October 2014). Since mid-2012, all stories on the Fairfax website have referred to Myanmar. For instance:

“Key arrives in Myanmar in historic first” (Fairfax, 21 November 2012)

 “The life of children in Myanmar” (Fairfax, 26 March 2014)

                 “Myanmar media climate ‘worsening’” (Fairfax, 11 April 2014)

The above stories illustrate Fairfax’s willingness to critically engage with issues facing Myanmar/Burma. This has been driven in part by political reporter Andrea Vance. She has travelled to the country on a number of occasions, and attended a media conference there at the invitation of the Asia New Zealand Foundation (Asia NZ Foundation, 2013). Vance’s involvement appears to have led to heightened interest and awareness of Myanmar/Burma within Fairfax.

Despite its level of awareness, Fairfax coverage of Myanmar/Burma still fits the First World model in the Four Worlds news values matrix (Robie, 2014). News stories focus on objectivity and timeliness, and the many unusual situations within Myanmar/Burma are part of these stories’ appeal to the Fairfax audience. (i.e. it is portrayed as an exotic “other”). For these reasons Fairfax coverage can be described as First World.

3 News
3 News is the only outlet to have more references to Burma than to Myanmar, with the former mentioned 612 times and the latter just 340 times. In the reverse of Fairfax, most stories that use the word Myanmar are from earlier than 2012, for example:

                 “Aid trickles in to Myanmar” (3 News, 9 May 2008)

                  “Little hope for change in Myanmar” (3 News, 18 November 2010)

However, in 2012 there was a change in the approach taken by 3 News. As with Fairfax, this coincided with heightened international interest in Myanmar, and Prime Minister John Key’s first visit there. A series of articles appeared on the 3 News website discussing which name was correct:

“Myanmar or Burma? Obama calls it both on visit” (3 News, 19 November 2012)

“Suu Kyi: It’s Burma, not Myanmar” (3 News, 23 November 2012a)

                “The politics of Myanmar vs Burma” (3 News, 23 November 2012b)

The official 3 News style changed to Burma shortly after. This was confirmed via email correspondence with a television producer, who also discussed several reasons behind the change (3 News, 6 October 2014). Among those reasons was the need for 3 News to align itself with ITV, its international television affiliate. ITV is a British channel, and British media still use Burma (BBC, 2007). The producer explained it would be confusing for viewers to hear presenters talking about Myanmar, and then hear an ITV story referring to Burma. He also noted that Aung San Suu Kyi’s preference was Burma.

The above demonstrates a willingness by 3 News to engage in the debate over which name is correct, and it was the only outlet to cover the issue in such detail. However its coverage differs from Fairfax in that it appears to focus more intently on international politics and diplomacy. This puts it within the First World model of the Four Worlds news values matrix, in which news is defined (among other things) by timeliness, conflict and human interest (Robie, 2014).

New Zealand Herald
The New Zealand Herald is unique in that there is a much smaller difference between the number of times Myanmar and Burma are mentioned on its website. Myanmar is used 984 times, and Burma 840 times. The Herald is similar to Fairfax and 3 News in that its style also changed around 2012, coinciding with Prime Minister John Key’s first visit there. An editor confirmed via email correspondence that the Herald’s usage changed from Myanmar to Burma at that point (NZ Herald, 8 October 2014). He explained it was believed that Myanmar was the name given to the country by a military junta, and that as it moved toward democracy the timing was appropriate to go back to using the old name. This trend is shown within stories published since 2012, for example:

“John Key began the first visit of a New Zealand Prime Minister to Burma literally walking in Barack Obama’s footsteps.” (NZ Herald, 22 November 2012)

“Patamyai Hla, 20, came here as a child in 2006 from a refugee camp in Thailand, where his parents had fled from Burma.” (NZ Herald, 4 December 2013)

“The ANZ Banking Group is bidding for a banking license in Burma…” (NZ Herald, 1 July 2014)

The above stories all involve a New Zealand connection, and it is important to note that they all appeared in the print version of the New Zealand Herald. The style for stories which only appear on the New Zealand Herald website appears to be more fluid. Many of these stories still refer to Myanmar, for example:

“Name of Muslim group in Myanmar goes unspoken” (NZ Herald, 19 August 2014)

“Myanmar and Sri Lankan hard-liners ink agreement” (NZ Herald, 1 October 2014)

“US concerned Myanmar will put noncitizens in camps” (NZ Herald, 4 October 2014”

The above stories were all wires taken from the Associated Press. From them it appears the New Zealand Herald adheres to whatever usage is employed by the original media outlet, and doesn’t feel strongly enough about the issue to change them for consistency. This contrasts with 3 News, which routinely edits Associated Press stories so they refer to Burma, not Myanmar. The New Zealand Herald’s detached perspective and focus on timeliness and proximity mean it fits within the First World model of the Four Worlds news values matrix (Robie, 2014).

It is clear that New Zealand media coverage of Myanmar/Burma is as varied in its approach as the international community. Radio NZ has always used Myanmar, reflecting the usage adopted by the military government and accepted by the likes of the United Nations. Fairfax previously called it Burma but now calls it Myanmar, and 3 News previously called it Myanmar but now calls it Burma. The New Zealand Herald also switched from Myanmar to Burma, but still uses Myanmar in stories that only appear online. ONE News uses both, although Myanmar appears more frequently on its website. The coverage of all five outlets conforms to the First World model in the Four Worlds news values matrix (Robie, 2014).

Fairfax and 3 News appear to be the news outlets that have engaged most critically with the current climate in Myanmar. It is interesting to note that they have arrived at opposite conclusions as to what the country should be called. Fairfax believes Myanmar is appropriate now that the country is approaching democracy, whereas 3 News believes the use of Myanmar lends undeserved legitimacy to the military junta’s claim to authority. This reflects the assertion by Steinberg (2001) that usage of Myanmar or Burma denotes a person or organisation’s political inclinations. It is unclear what direction future New Zealand media coverage will take, although confusion and debate is likely to continue for some time.

When searching for the word “Burma” on news websites, a number of results related not to the nation, but to an elephant at Auckland Zoo sharing the same name. To correct for this, the number of stories involving the elephant on each website were tallied and then subtracted from the total.


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