Out of the Media's Eye

Before I met a refugee family from Burma, I was mostly unaware of the southeast Asian country. For a year of Sunday afternoons, I taught this family English, took them to the library, and helped them apply for green cards; they taught me courage, hope, resilience—and the story the newspaper headlines hadn’t.

All four children were born in a Thai refugee camp, where the parents had lived the better part of their lives, nearly 20 years. One afternoon they slipped a video into their church-donated VCR and implored me to watch with them. “This Pop’s village,” the oldest girl told me as a lazy river lined with men fishing and women chatting appeared on the TV. Then her face grew serious. “We can’t live there again,” she said.

I drove home wondering: How many other stories haven’t I heard? And how do we learn of, and engage with, the places and stories outside the media’s eye?

The media has blind spots, and they threaten to become our own. The 24-hour news cycle loves novelty; it has room for short-lived cyclones and monk-led protests, but not decades of continuous oppression and ethnic cleansing. There’s also the matter of access. Countries embroiled in human rights abuses are hard, sometimes even impossible, for reporters to get into. North Korea is currently detaining, and plans a June trial for, two U.S. journalists who were covering the plight of refugees along the Chinese border. When and if the media gains access, it often must trade full disclosure to do so; the information that passes censorship can wind up being lukewarm pseudo-truth.

The truth is that Burma is not the only place that’s been hidden. Armed conflict in Colombia has created at least 2.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs)—perhaps as many as 4.6 million since 1985, according to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement. The genocide in Rwanda was weeks old before international attention caught on.

Despite the lack of coverage, Burma could very well be Asia’s own Darfur. For the past 21 years, the Burmese military junta has been oppressing and driving out that country’s ethnic minorities. With 500,000 internally displaced people, Burma is the region’s worst IDP crisis zone, according to the U.S. Campaign for Burma. Outside the country’s borders, more than 150,000 Burmese are passing their lives in refugee camps. Burma has forcibly recruited tens of thousands of child soldiers and has racked up decades of human rights abuses—massive minority displacement, rape, and forced labor.

International leaders, as well as the media, are baffled. “Imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta,” Hillary Clinton lamented in a recent visit to East Asia. “Reaching out and trying to engage them hasn’t worked either.” The Campaign is pushing for a global arms embargo.

But for Burma, and the numerous other muffled stories, there is need to pause and comment, not because there’s a new angle or development, but precisely because there is not. God implores us to hear the cries of the oppressed, and to stand on the side of justice—and promises that this is the side that will prevail at the end of the story.

We need to be seekers of truth, not mere consumers. Look to alternative news sources, follow reports from human rights organizations—or just look in your own backyard. Burma was caught in my blind spot until I sat down in a living room with her people and heard their story.

Kaitlin Barker is editorial assistant for Sojourners. For more on Burma, see www.uscampaignforburma.org, www.tbbc.org, www.hrw.org/en/asia/burma, and www.irrawaddy.org.

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