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Editorial: Popham stirs the pot, again

File photo of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi. (Photo: Reuters)

It’s been a busy, challenging couple of weeks for the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party that will assume power in Burma on Friday — nearly five months after an electoral landslide last November, and more than 25 years after it first delivered a humiliating defeat to an army-backed party to win an election victory that was never recognised.

Not too surprisingly, much of the euphoria over the NLD’s ascent has worn off, as the tedious business of putting together a government consisting mostly of individuals most of us have never heard of takes the place of a heroic narrative of good triumphing over evil.

There have been a few embarrassments (such as the finance minister with the fake degree) and some disappointment (why is NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi the only woman in the cabinet?), but mostly there has been a desire (at least on the part of many in the media) to just get on with it so we can finally get to see what an NLD government will look like in action.

Most in the media have been patient enough to wade through the steady stream of lists of nominees to the cabinet and various committees without complaint; after all, that’s what reporters are paid for. But if you’re a little more ambitious than the average hack (and especially if have a new book to hawk), you need to take a little initiative unless you want to lose your audience’s interest.

That seems to be what happened last week when Peter Popham, the author of two Suu Kyi biographies, was cited as the source of a claim that Burma’s democracy icon had expressed anger at being interviewed by a Muslim — BBC journalist Mishal Husain — more than two years ago.

“No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim,” the Lady reportedly said, according to a slew of reports based on a claim contained in “The Lady and the Generals,” Popham’s latest book on Suu Kyi, released just over two weeks ago.

Popham was quick to provide a helpful analysis of what the alleged remark might say about Suu Kyi, as if the question of whether she ever actually uttered the words he puts in her mouth was settled.

So far, neither Suu Kyi nor her party have offered any comment. That shouldn’t be too surprising, though — no doubt they have enough on their plate without having to worry about how well Popham’s book sells.

This is not the first time that Popham’s sensationalism has irked Burma watchers. Last year, he wrote, “Burma’s ‘great terror’ moves a step closer as Taliban urges Rohingya to ‘take up the sword,’” an article that couldn’t have done more to stoke tensions in Arakan State if it had tried. Based solely on the inflammatory rhetoric of media-savvy jihadis, it provides no evidence of an actual terrorist threat.

At this point, it would be tempting to write an analysis of Popham’s motives in the same vein as his own offering: “Peter Popham: What his irresponsible reporting about Burma can tell us about his views.” Given his tolerant, liberal views and his apparent sympathy for the charismatic subject of two of his books, why does he seem so intent on portraying her as a closet bigot?

Does the man who once described the Chin people as “a short, stocky, coffee-coloured race who might be mistaken for Red Indians” secretly harbour racist views? Is it defamatory to even ask such a question? Or is it okay to say anything you like, as long as you frame it in the form of a question?

These are trying times for Burma, a country of heightened hopes that still bears the dead weight of military domination. This is the burden that the NLD must now be prepared to carry if Burma is ever to achieve genuine democracy. However imperfect it may be, the party deserves to be given a fair chance to succeed, instead of having to deal with controversies cooked up just to sell copy.

No journalist would ever argue that Suu Kyi and her colleagues should get a free pass if they stray from their own principles. But it should be equally obvious that it isn’t the job of journalists to present self-serving rumours as self-evident truths.