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Myanmar

Religious hate intensifies ahead of Myanmar election

Anti-Muslim hate speech has been a vexed issue since clashes between Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists in 2012

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Updated: November 07, 2020 04:40 AM GMT
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Religious hate intensifies ahead of Myanmar election

Supporters of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) wave the party's flags on Oct. 1 as they campaign in Naypyidaw ahead of the Nov. 8 general election. (Photo: Thet Aung/AFP)

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An atmosphere of religious polarization persists in Myanmar as the Buddhist-majority nation faces its second democratic election since the end of hardline military rule in 2011.

As campaigns have largely moved online because of the Covid-19 pandemic, social media pages and groups have engaged in spreading racist abuse and misinformation, particularly against the country's Muslim minority.

"Burma [Myanmar] has failed to use its own laws related to incitement to protect minorities but has frequently used them to protect the military and those in power from suppressing the freedom of expression," said a study released on Nov. 4.

The UK-based Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN), which released the study, reported 39 cases of hate speech, and some of them were shared over online platforms more than 2,000 times.

Citing the rampant human rights violations against Myanmar's Muslim minority, the 34-page study noted that many Muslim candidates are "unjustly disqualified" from entering the poll fray after falsely claiming "they could not prove their ancestry's citizenship."

Amid a growing spread of coronavirus and civil unrest in remote areas, Myanmar is slated for polls on Nov. 8.

Myanmar's internet presence is comparatively high in the region. Half its 53 million people are into social media platform Facebook, which has become synonymous with the internet in the Southeast Asian nation.

For Facebook, the stakes are particularly high in Myanmar due to previous accusations that it helped incite genocide. Anti-Muslim rumors on Facebook were cited as widely helping to trigger deadly civil unrest in 2017.

While the poll campaigning was underway, Facebook reportedly deleted 280,000 posts in Myanmar due to spreading hate speech in the second quarter of 2020. The figure was 51,000 in the first quarter.

However, there is no proof that the administration has done anything to check the growing hate speech against Muslims.

Rafael Frankel, Facebook's director of public policy for Southeast Asia, told Reuters ahead of the poll: "What we have seen so far is typical and nothing in any way out of the ordinary from what we would see in other parts of the world when an election is happening."

The credibility of the polls is further at stake as more than 1.5 million people, including Rohingya Muslims, in strife-ridden Rakhine state have been disenfranchised by the country's election commission.

Khin Maung, the founder of a Rohingya refugee group in Bangladesh, also noted that hate speech is used against ethnic minorities.

Accusing the government of spreading hate speech, Maung said terming Rohingya people as Bengalis (people from Bangladesh) "is hate speech. We totally dislike this term. But the Burmese government's officers use the term against us continuously."

The Rohingya, described by the UN as the world's most persecuted people, faced communal violence after the Myanmar army launched a crackdown in August 2017.

The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, is expected to win the election. The NLD and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) are the two main contenders.

More than 7,000 candidates are vying for more than 1,100 seats in both the parliament and provincial state legislatures.

The two main political parties, however, pleaded ignorance about hate speech. The USDP denied it was spreading the hate speech and NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt told Radio Free Asia that his party was on the receiving end of racial attacks and hate speech.

However, activists said there have been many instances of bigotry and hate speech during the poll campaign, backed by the army and the civilian government.

Anti-Muslim hate speech has been a vexed issue in Myanmar since clashes erupted between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists in 2012, leaving more than 280 people dead and 130,000 homeless.

Five years later, Myanmar's military attacked Rohingya militants with a scorched-earth campaign on countless villages, forcing 740,000 members of the Muslim minority to flee neighboring Bangladesh.

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