Myanmar Anti-Hate Speech Orders Aimed at Halting Discrimination Against Rohingya

myanmar-govt-spokesman-zaw-htay-naypyidaw-jan7-2019.jpg Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay speaks during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw, Jan. 7, 2019.
Credit: AFP

The government of Myanmar has ordered all civil servants to stop using hate speech on social media, a persistent problem in the majority Buddhist country, nearly three years after soldiers and local militias drove more than 740,000 Muslim Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh.

The order, announced by President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay, requires that civil servants monitor and report online behavior to the central government. Critics say the move might be an attempt to clean up Myanmar’s image ahead of future international hearings on the alleged genocide of Rohingya in the country’s western Rakhine state.

In addition to government employees, security forces and military servicemen are also being directed not to engage in hate speech or incite violence, while participating in anti-hate speech campaigns.

“We are trying to build a community with mutual understanding and respect,” Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister of relief, resettlement and social welfare, told RFA’s Myanmar Service, adding that the directive was issued in the third week of April.

“We should avoid violence that stems from hate speech. We have highlighted the key points in the directives to all [government] employees in 15 states and regions including the Naypyidaw Council,” he said.

In war-torn Chin state, municipal minister Soe Htet told RFA that detailed reports on the progress of the initiative were necessary.

“We held a meeting to brief all our employees not to engage in hate speech. We urged them to educate their friends and family members to do the same,” he said.

“I think we will have to report back about the briefing to [our superiors],” he said.

Rights groups cautiously applaud orders

Civil groups who have been fighting against hate speech welcomed the government initiative, but expressed doubts that the order is genuine, citing the government’s ongoing trial at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, the Netherlands.

Myanmar was brought before the ICJ last year, the Muslim-majority West African nation Gambia filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, accusing Myanmar of violating the 1948 Genocide Convention during the expulsion of Rohingya to Bangladesh amid the violence targeting the minority community in Rakhine state in 2017.

Thousands of Rohingya perished as a result of the 2017 violence, which included indiscriminate killings, mass rape, torture, and village burnings. More than 740,000 others fled to safety in neighboring Bangladesh where they live in massive displacement camps.

In January, the ICJ ordered Myanmar to implement measures to protect Rohingya Muslims from genocide and to preserve evidence of atrocities allegedly committed against them during a military-led crackdown. Myanmar rejected the request and repeated its denial of the genocide accusations.

Although delayed by coronavirus pandemic countermeasures, ICJ investigations are expected to proceed against Myanmar before long.

“We have noticed that the government has issued directives on hate speech in the past few days. This coincides with increasing international pressure, as they will soon submit a report to the ICJ,” said Thet Swe Win, executive director of the Center for Youth and Social Harmony.

“They may be politically motivated to reduce international pressure, but otherwise these measures are very good in nature,” he said.

“Besides the government order, they should also try to implement these measures on the ground effectively. If they only intend to use them to alleviate international pressure, it’s not going to work,” Thet Swe Win added.

Aung Thein, a member of parliament, disagreed that the measures were only lip service.

“[The government] issued these directives because they are needed,” he told RFA.

“I don’t think they are using them to just alleviate pressure because of the ICJ. Departments like the President’s Office or the government administration know more about these issues than we do, so they may be issuing orders in response to what they know,” he added.

The Rohingya have centuries of history in Myanmar, but they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denied citizenship, prevented from obtaining jobs and formal education, and restricted from moving freely.

Defining hate speech

A court attorney from Mandalay region also named Aung Thein told RFA he sent a letter to President Win Myint and former President Thein Sein recommending they release an official definition of hate speech.

He suggested including in the definition, discrimination against a group of people who are of different religious beliefs or ethnic backgrounds, including those of mixed heritage, using discriminatory words. But he said the President’s Office was not working closely with him.

“We have to see how far the president and state counselor’s measures will go,” Aung Thein said.

“If they only intend to take superficial measures, they will [be ineffective] in the long run,” he added.

“They should take more sincere actions, like appearing on TV to speak out on the issue, urging people to refrain from using hate speech. Both the president and State Counselor [Aung San Suu Kyi] should do that” he said.

“The announcement by a mere President’s Office spokesman is not enough. It won’t make a difference,” he said.

Hate speech in Myanmar is still prevalent despite previous purported government efforts to stop it.

In March 2019, The United Nations human rights envoy on Myanmar decried the “pervasive nature of hate speech” targeting Muslims by government officials and school textbooks in Myanmar in a report report she wrote for the U.N. Human Rights Council.

The report cited examples of hate speech used by senior officials, and highlighted examples of hate speech in text books, including a fourth-grade lesson on patriotic spirit that encouraged students to “loathe those of mixed blood,” claiming they hold back the progression of the dominant race.

In May 2019, Twitter suspended the account of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing for hate speech. Rights groups say the general is the architect of the bloody ethnic cleansing campaign that drove more than 740,000 Muslim Rohingya into Bangladesh in 2017. His Facebook account was suspended for the same reason nine months prior.

These events came after Thura Aung Ko, Myanmar's minister for religious affairs and culture, said the ministry was drafting a bill to counter hate speech in 2017. At that time, the bill had been ordered by the state counselor to be presented in the parliament.

“I have not seen any official hate speech bill or discussions in parliament during the current parliamentary sessions,” Oo Hla Saw, a lawmaker who represents Rakhine's Mrauk-U township, told RFA.

Civil society groups say the law to counter hate speech should address the management of the crimes related to hate speeches, in addition to preventing them.

Local groups working to fight hate speech say that since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, hate speech has a new targetCOVID-19 patients, suspected patients, and volunteers.

Reported by Waimar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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