By Bernard Cheah
YANGON, Myanmar — THE LADY has finally spoken, but will she be able to make the online hatemongers shut up?
Just a day after Myanmar’s historic 2015 elections and already anticipating victory at the polls, opposition National League of Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi stressed that she does not condone hate, regardless if it is against ethnic groups or minorities in the country.
“Hate leads to violence, and it could destroy the society,” she said in an interview with the BBC. “It is something we all have to work together (to resolve).”
So-called ‘hate speech’ has become a serious concern in Myanmar in the last few years, with its spread helped largely by the increasing popularity of Facebook in this sprawling Southeast Asian nation. And while trolling or pranking online is nothing new and far from being unique to Myanmar, the cyber vitriol that has been spewed by anonymous Facebook users here have either contributed to or directly led to several instances of communal violence. In one instance, two people were even killed and several others injured.
More often than not, the target of the online hate speech, which includes unfounded stories, are the Rohingya, a Muslim minority who live mostly in Myanmar’s southwestern state of Rakhine. (Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist, representing 80 percent of the population.)
It’s unclear how and when it all started, but in the last two years, the ‘hate’ posts seem to have picked up steam, with individuals apparently hiding behind fake Facebook accounts churning out hundreds of pages against the Rohingya in particular. And while the Rohingya have long been outcasts in Myanmar society, the hate speech aimed at them have only made them more vulnerable to abuse.
In an incident in July last year in Mandalay, however, one of the two who wound up dead in part because of online hate speech was Buddhist, as were several of the other casualties.
A riot had begun when a mob attacked a teashop owned by a Muslim man, who was accused of raping a Buddhist woman. The attack was apparently triggered when Ashin Wirathu, spiritual leader of the Buddhist 969 Movement, posted a report of the alleged rape on his Facebook page, and called for a harsh government response to “jihadist Muslims”.
Local media also reported that eight separate conflicts took place in the region for over two nights, involving mobs of as many as 450 people, some armed with weapons that included swords, firearms, knives, and rods.
The deadly clashes led to the authorities imposing a curfew in Mandalay and the temporary suspension of Facebook operations.
Rumours become fact
Myanmar ICT Development Organisation (MIDO) co-founder Nay Myo Kyaw said that many cannot seem to differentiate between “fake” and “real” news in cyberspace.
“Getting news from Facebook and (reading published) journals are not the same,” said Nay, who is better known by his blogging moniker Nay Phone Latt.
“Most believe what they read,” he said, “but is better to get news content from reliable sources and verified pages.” Nay added that people need to be “editors” in looking through online information before they accept any of it as fact.
Speaking with this writer days before the election, Nay said that everyone, both the young and old, needs to be tech-savvy so they would not be taken in so easily by rumours masquerading as news online.
Nay, who ran and eventually won as MP for Thingayun township in the November 8 polls, has proposed that the government introduce a syllabus on using technology and social media in school.
In the meantime, there is still his Panzagar or Flower Speech movement, which he initiated in 2014 to curb online hate speech.
Among the tools used by the movement to fight online negativity is a collection of Facebook stickers with cute Japanese-anime inspired drawings and messages in Burmese telling people to “think before you share”, “don’t spread hate”, and “please don’t swear”.
Panzagar supporters have also gone around major cities in Myanmar with flowers in their mouths and distributing pamphlets that remind people of the dangers of “irresponsible and hateful speech”. While it’s difficult to measure the impact of such activities just yet, Panzagar has proved popular enough for Instagram postings of the movement’s colourful Facebook stickers and photos of people with flowers clamped between their lips. Pazangar’s Burmese-language Facebook page (it has another one in English) is also clocking 45,000 fans so far.
Why no jail time for hatemongers?
Of course another way of discouraging hate speech online is haling to court those responsible for it. But authorities do not seem keen on doing that, at least according to some of the government’s critics.
Referring to the online hatemongers, legal activist Robert Sann Aung wondered aloud: “Why isn’t there any action taken against these individuals?”
May Sabe Phyu, senior coordinator of the Gender Equality Network (GEN) in Yangon, also said that there appears to be no official efforts to trace who have been behind the anonymous “horrible hate speech” online. “Why does the law ignore them?” she asked.
May’s own husband, Kachin peace activist Patrick Kum Jaa Lee, is currently serving a three-year jail term for sharing a Facebook post showing someone stepping on a photo of General Min Aung Hlaing. Similarly, Chaw Sandi Tun, a female activist and NLD Youth member, has been thrown behind bars for a Facebook post mocking the military.
Lamented May: “It seems that the people using real name and profile are arrested, while those with fake accounts are not getting into trouble.”
That may not exactly be true. More recently, 28-year-old cell phone shop employee Lu Zaw Soe Win was arrested for posting a picture of Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing that was superimposed “with the image of faeces,” according to the Myanmar Times. Lu had used the alias Zaw Htoo Maung for his Facebook account, said the paper.
At least one member of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has also been slapped with a defamation lawsuit for posting an image of a nude woman on which the face of Suu Kyi was photoshopped. The post, which also had vulgar comments, was on the Facebook page by one “Thu Thu”. An NGO volunteer later filed a lawsuit against USDP’s joint secretary of the Kangyidaunt Township, Than Tun, alleging that he owned the account.
Than Tun has since been charged in court under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law in Nov 5, but unlike Lu, he has been released on bail.
Still, by contrast, no one appears to have taken the trouble of trying to unmask the hate speech posters.
But there are now hopes that will change once The Lady’s NLD is able to form a new government.
In her interview with the BBC, Daw Suu Kyi noted that the people of Myanmar are open to the voice of reason, and there is no reason to let hatred reign.
“The great majority want peace and harmony, not fear and hatred,” she said. She also pointed out that hate speech is not permitted in the constitution.
Said Suu Kyi, who along with her party has been criticised by rights activists for supposedly keeping silent about the plight of the Rohingya: “As the government, we should protect everyone in country according to the law – it is the duty of government.”
The question of control
The problem is that while there is no longer any question that the NLD has achieved a convincing win at the polls, it remains to be seen whether it will really end up in control of Myanmar’s government.
The official turnover to the new government will not happen until March 2016, and people here are wary of a repeat of what happened after the 1990 polls, which the NLD had also won by a landslide. At the time, military junta refused to recognise the election results and hand over the reins of government to Suu Kyi’s party. Many NLD officials and supporters were jailed and Suu Kyi, then already under house arrest, would herself remain under detention for many more years.
There is also the fact that Suu Kyi is barred from becoming the president of Myanmar. The 2008 constitution contains a hurdle inserted by the military government that states that anyone with foreign children cannot become president — a clause seen as the military’s attempt to stop her from ever taking power. Suu Kyi was married to the late Oxford don Michael Aris; their two grown sons are British citizens.
Suu Kyi, however, recently said in a press conference here that she would be “above the president”.
“If I’m required to field a president who meets the requirements of section F of the constitution, all right then, we’ll find one,” she said. “But that won’t stop me making all the decisions as the leader of the winning party.”
Then again, there is the influential nationalist monk group Ma Ba Tha (also known as the Patriotic Association of Myanmar), which has “cautiously welcomed” the landslide victory of NLD, even as it warned against any attempt to change the controversial “race and religion laws”.
The online publication Myanmar Now has also quoted Wirathu as saying that the group is determined to protect the laws even if this meant confronting a new NLD government.
In the runup to the 2015 elections, Ma Ba Tha had urged the public to shun the NLD, saying a win for the opposition party would risk the country being dominated by Muslims.
The Lady, then, may not have the last say on the cyber hatemongers.
*) This article is produced for the 2015 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship program raising a theme “Covering the coverage of the 2015 elections in Myanmar.” Bernard Cheah is a Malaysian journalist working for the Sun Daily, Malaysia.