Some in Myanmar Fear Fallout From Facebook Removal of Military Pages

Isolating the country’s most powerful institution could have harmful results, the government says.

The Facebook logo is seen on an advertisement by a local telecom company in Myanmar's commercial capital Yangon, June 7, 2018.

Myanmar’s government spokesman on Tuesday questioned Facebook’s decision to remove top military leaders and the powerful army from the social media website to "prevent the spread of hate and misinformation” on its networks, saying the move could endanger a fragile civilian-military reconciliation in the country.

The U.S. social media giant  said on Monday it was removing 18 Facebook accounts, one Instagram account and 52 Facebook pages linked to the Myanmar military “ to prevent them from using our service to further inflame ethnic and religious tensions.”

“Specifically, we are banning 20 individuals and organizations from Facebook in Myanmar — including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and the military’s Myawaddy television network,” Facebook said in a statement.

Facebook’s move came shortly after a three-member fact-finding mission, working under a mandate from the U.N.-backed Human Rights Council  said Min Aung Hlaing and other Myanmar military leaders should be referred to the International Criminal Court in the Hague for the army campaign that killed thousands and drove some 700,000 of Muslim Rohingya minority into Bangladesh last year.

“We are concerned that the action of Facebook can somehow damage our national reconciliation. For instance, it may lead to misunderstanding between the military and government,” Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay told reporters in Naypyidaw.

“Soon after the accounts of Myanmar’s top general and other military leaders were blocked, the officers from Myanmar army’s social media unit contacted us and questioned why. We then asked the Facebook company to give us the reason for blocking those accounts,” he said.

“According to the democratic point of view, Facebook shouldn’t do this. There was no hate speech on Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s Facebook page, only his news. And also, the military is second largest institution after government. We should pay both of them equal respect,” said Soe Thein, a former minister of the president’s office, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

Reuters news agency quoted Facebook spokeswoman Ruchika Budhraja as saying it was the first time Facebook banned a country’s military or political leaders. She said the bans could not be appealed, and were driven by the United Nations findings as well as media reports and advocacy groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

“Many of these violations undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law,” said the report to the UN by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, which cataloged abuses in Rakhine, home to the Rohingya, as well as Kachin and Shan States in the north where the army has waged war against ethnic armies for decades.

“They are shocking for the level of denial, normalcy and impunity that is attached to them,” said the report.

'One-sided point of view'

Myanmar has flatly denied committing the atrocities against Rohingya documented in various UN and NGO reports on the military campaign that followed attacks on guard posts and a police station on Aug. 25, 2017 by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya militant group, that triggered a campaign of violence by Myanmar forces targeting the Rohingya, including killings, torture, rape, and village burnings in Rakhine.

“U.N. officials have denounced the Myanmar military for committing alleged human rights violations and Myanmar has said that this is not true,” said former Lieutenant General Thaung Aye, a lawmaker of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a military-backed group.

“Even though Myanmar has been doing as much as it can to solve the problems, Facebook has removed Myanmar generals’ accounts with the reason of human right violations and it is a very one-sided point of view. All Myanmar people should reject this kind of action,” he told RFA.

Myanmar citizens who spoke to RFA had mixed views of the decision by Facebook, which is a key component of online life in a country that ended nearly 50 years of isolation only early in this decade.

“We could know what military was doing via their pages and we need to know it,” said Aung Win, a resident of Ye Township in southern Myanmar’s Mon State

“There are about 20 million Facebook users in Myanmar and these 20 million include ethnic armed groups, the government, other organizations and different classes of people who have lost their chances to check and know military news and actions because Facebook removed their accounts. I think it makes the peace process and national reconciliation difficult,” he told RFA.

IT technician Ye Myat Thu said he wanted to hear more concrete explanations from Facebook about its decision.

“If not, this kind of removal can impact it, and other social media, such as (Chinese platform) WeChat can replace in its spot as they are trying to gain markets,” he added.

Businessman Kyaw Thu Han, however, said that Facebook was only a small part of the communication channels available to the military. The army has dominated the country once known as Burma since a 1962 coup and still controls the nation from behind the scenes despite the election in 2015 of Aung San Suu Kyi.

“These military generals have many channels, such as TV, radio, online and print media, not only this Facebook. They won’t hurt that much because their accounts are removed, but, they might feel ashamed because they can’t any longer use a social media platform that everybody can use,” said Kyaw Thu Han.

Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt and Zarni Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Paul Eckert.