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Free speech comes at a price in Myanmar

As internet access increases, so does hate speech directed at ethnic and religious minorities
Free speech comes at a price in Myanmar

Myanmar youths browse Facebook at an internet shop in Yangon on Dec. 18, 2018. Facebook has removed hundreds of pages and accounts in Myanmar with hidden links to the military as it seeks to control hate speech and misinformation. (AFP photo)

Published: May 03, 2019 05:51 AM GMT

Myanmar has more freedom of speech than ever before but a lot of online content on social media is divisive or even incendiary, say observers and rights advocates.

For half a century, severe repression sealed citizens in Myanmar off from the outside world and subjected them to relentless propaganda by a ruling military junta. Yet after historic democratic elections in 2015, internet access has been increasing in the country.

Social media engagement has been growing as more citizens take to platforms like Facebook to get their news and voice their views.

However, much online content in Myanmar consists of misinformation and hate speech directed at ethnic and religious minorities, says Zar Chi Oo, an independent analyst who is a member of the international interfaith initiative Harmony Working Group.

“A new wave of information technology is sweeping Myanmar. Our country is just opening up and we’ve been thrown into an ocean of information after 50 years of no information,” she says.

“There is far more diversity of views, which is good, but there’s also a danger because there has been an upsurge in incendiary views that target religious and ethnic groups.”

Much of the incitement on social media, the analyst says, is generated by hard-line Buddhist groups. The subjects of their ire are ethnic and religious minorities, especially the Rohingya, a stateless, predominantly Muslim ethnic group whom many local Buddhists see as foreign interlopers.

In 2016 and 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were driven from their villages in Rakhine State into neighboring Bangladesh from where they originally migrated to Myanmar decades ago.

In Facebook posts and comments, Zar Chi Oo notes, the Rohingya are routinely depicted as militant Islamists who are seeking to take over parts of the country through armed conflict and soaring birth rates, which will lead to them outnumbering local Buddhists.

“Some groups are stoking fears about a takeover of Rakhine State by the Rohingya,” she says. “I have friends on both sides of the conflict there and it’s disheartening to see how high emotions can run.”

Because the general quality of journalism in Myanmar remains low, many people continue to rely on social media to stay informed about their country, says Myat Thu, who works with the Myanmar Tech Accountability Network and has been monitoring online hate speech.

“The internet can become a powerful tool for disinformation,” Myat Thu says. “You can see a lot of deliberate misinformation online.”

Nationalist and separatist groups alike exploit social media platforms for propaganda purposes, and so does the country’s powerful military. Spamming comments sections on Facebook with targeted messages via fake accounts is one common tactic.

“The government is a big part of the problem,” Myat Thu says. “In the past, the army suppressed all news from outside the country. Nowadays, rather than outright suppress news by the BBC and other foreign news organizations, the military tries to discredit it by branding it fake news.”

Some rights advocates have called for a banning of content deemed hate speech on social media in Myanmar. Yet others don’t see that as an ideal solution.

“The most effective way to address the issue of hate speech is not to ban it or regulate it,” says Wai Phyo Myint, regional outreach manager at the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, where she focuses on advocacy and government relations.

“I don’t think it would be a good idea to expect a company like Facebook to take sides in Myanmar. We don’t want or need further restraints on our freedom to speak up. What we need to do is educate the public about the issues honestly.”

Hate speech is an ill-defined, nebulous concept that means different things to different people, says Zar Chi Oo. A heavy-handed attempt at regulating it on social media could do more harm than good, especially in a country like Myanmar where freedom of speech remains limited and precarious.

Robust public debate within Myanmar is essential in the country’s slow and painful transition to a more democratic and equitable society, says Caroline Stover, Asia program officer for Article 19, a British human rights organization that promotes free speech. 

“We don’t want to see a new law that allows the government to persecute its critics” under the pretext of rooting out “hate speech,” Stover says. “Further criminalizing speech is not the right way.”

Instead, social media companies like Facebook should enforce their online community standards, which proscribe incitement to violence on their platform. Yet they should not take controversial content down arbitrarily because that could stifle online debate.

“For the first time, people in Myanmar have a voice and that shouldn’t be discounted,” Stover says.

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