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Why Myanmar's rumor mill is always spinning

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A man wears a badge showing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and a sticker bearing the emblem of her party, the National League for Democracy.   © Reuters

There is something about Myanmar that encourages conspiracy theories and wild rumors. Not only does the country create them in abundance, but they tend to be picked up by the international news media and otherwise draw attention. If cited in academic works, they gain a credibility that most do not deserve. 

     To give two examples: When a misguided American tourist swam, uninvited, across a lake in Yangon to the home of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2009, activist groups suggested that he had been put up to it by Myanmar's military intelligence service to justify an extension of her house arrest beyond the 2010 elections. And when President Thein Sein acknowledged Myanmar's myriad social and economic problems in 2011 and announced an ambitious reform program, some journalists and activists claimed it was merely a ploy to neutralize Suu Kyi and hoodwink foreign governments into believing the country was taking serious steps to change.

     Both theories have been dismissed -- rightly -- by serious Myanmar-watchers. 

     Myanmar also seems to encourage dramatic claims about broader strategic developments, despite a lack of evidence. For 15 years, Indian officials and Western analysts claimed that China was operating a large intelligence collection station on Myanmar's Great Coco Island. In 2005, India acknowledged that the story was, and always had been, completely baseless. 

     In 2009, it was claimed that Myanmar was developing a nuclear weapon, and by 2014 would be producing one bomb a year. There was a low-level nuclear research program but a weapon, particularly in that time frame, was a fantasy. 

     There are some genuine mysteries, however, that have long intrigued those with an interest in the country.

     One is that, despite being the most powerful institution in Myanmar for half a century, the size, order of battle and combat capabilities of the country's armed forces remain largely unknown.

     Another concerns Myanmar's long-held, shadowy ties to North Korea. The relationship has probably included the sale of arms, equipment and technology, but the full extent of it has yet to be determined. 

POLICY CONSEQUENCES   Why has Myanmar given rise to so many unconfirmed rumors and dubious news reports? I think there are several reasons. 

     First, there is a long tradition in Myanmar of storytelling, rumor-mongering and gossip, rooted in the country's ubiquitous "tea shop culture." Another influence has been the restrictions on free speech imposed by successive military governments, which made open discussion of many issues dangerous.

     Second, news and views about Myanmar are now more freely available than at any point in the past 50 years, and statistics are becoming more reliable. But there is still a lack of hard, verifiable information. Clearly, journalists, diplomats and academics cannot investigate every intriguing story they hear.

     Third, given the volatility of Myanmar's political scene, the fractiousness of the parties, the divisions within major institutions and the strong feelings found in the world of international Myanmar studies, it is little wonder that sensational stories find their way into the public arena. The sources and motives behind these tales are rarely easy to determine.

     Fourth, the media -- both international and domestic -- are now better informed about Myanmar than in the past, when some myths formed the basis of serious reports and a few unlikely claims became the received wisdom. Even so, in today's competitive news environment, some media still publish stories that warrant more careful handling.

     A fifth reason for the profusion of unlikely stories could simply be that Myanmar is still seen by many foreigners as an exotic land of mystery and intrigue, an image that goes back to the early travelers who visited its shores and returned home to write colorful accounts of what they had -- or, in some cases, had not -- seen. 

     Juicy rumors and unsolved mysteries may add to the frisson of tours around Myanmar and discussions about the country at academic conferences. However, if not seen in proper perspective, and balanced by rigorous and objective research, myths and misconceptions can lead to serious errors of analysis and judgment. 

     Already, by misreading the signs and failing to understand Myanmar's internal dynamics, members of the international community have made some questionable policy decisions. This has complicated efforts by institutions both in Myanmar and abroad to tackle what British author Timothy Garton Ash has called the country's "fiendishly complex problems." 

Andrew Selth is an adjunct associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, and at the Australian National University's Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

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