Online and offline hate speech targeting Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims has reared its head in the run-up to national elections in November, as some candidates and others target the largely disenfranchised and despised ethnic minority group to gain support from voters.
Rights groups and hate speech experts warn that inflammatory language could stoke anti-Muslim, nationalist sentiment and incite ethnic and religious strife at a critical time, as it did during communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state in 2012 that left more than 200 people dead and led to the confinement of 130,000 Rohingya in internal displacement camps.
The spread of hate speech and fabricated reports online pose a significant risk to the general election, they say, because of the influence of social media on Myanmar’s 22 million internet users — roughly 41 percent of the country’s population of 54 million.
“The targeting of the Rohingya in the lead-up to the elections is one manifestation of Myanmar’s overall culture of exclusion,” Andrea Gittleman, senior program manager at the United States Holocaust Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, said in emailed comments to RFA.
“The disenfranchisement of the Rohingya and the vilification of the group have become normalized, that it has become more and more normalized for candidates to target the Rohingya in an attempt to attract more popular support,” she said.
The government has taken few measures to address the hate speech problem in the Buddhist-majority country where Rohingyas are routinely persecuted and denied work and educational opportunities. Most of the several hundred thousand Rohingyas living in Myanmar do not have the right to vote.
The Rohingya are widely viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though they have lived in Rakhine state on the Bay of Bengal coast for generations under ancient kingdoms later conquered by the Burmese and which became part of British India in the 19th century.
After the former Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948, the Rohingya received National Registration Cards issued by the government that carried full citizenship rights.
But in 1982, Myanmar enacted a Citizenship Law that limited citizenship to members of the “national races” seen as having settled in the country prior to the beginning of British rule in 1824. The Rohingya were not included among the 135 official ethnic groups and were suddenly excluded from full citizenship.
“Discrimination against the Rohingya runs deep in Myanmar’s society,” Claire Thomas, deputy director of London-based Minority Rights Group International (MRG), said in an email. “Candidates are flaming the fires of hate and capitalizing on it since many from the community cannot vote.”
Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications created a Social Media Monitoring Team (SMMT) in February 2018, receiving a parliament-approved budget of roughly 6.4 billion kyats (U.S. $4.9 million) to curb hate speech and fabricated reports on social media that could disrupt rule of law, security, and social stability.
The SMMT has been criticized, however, for not enforcing the removal of inflammatory speech online and for deleting posts that are critical of the ruling National League for Democracy party and the government. The NLD has denied that it removes online criticism.
Though President Win Myint told Union Election Commission (UEC) officials and government ministers in early July to work to prevent the spread of hate speech and any religious incitement that could threaten or thwart the Nov. 8 election, incidents still have occurred.
After the official two-month pre-election campaign period began in September, independent candidate Kyaw Soe Htut, who is running for a parliamentary seat in Yangon’s Latha township, used an anti-Rohingya slogan on his campaign posters.
He is competing for the seat against candidates from the NLD, opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Union Betterment Party (UBP), United Democratic Party (UDP), and National Democratic Force (NDF).
The posters contained three Banyan leaves — a symbol used by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority — and the slogan “No Rohingya.”
The West Yangon District Election Sub-commission ordered the candidate to remove the signs “to avoid a conflict if someone objected to them,” the body’s chairman Khin Maung Win told RFA on Sept. 22.
But Kyaw Soe Htut defied the order, saying that his slogan did not breech campaign rules and that it was not a religious issue. He also pointed out to the election sub-commission that the Rohingya are not among Myanmar’s official 135 ethnic minority groups, Khin Maung Win said.
Kyaw Soe Htut said he would comply with the request only if the national-level UEC instructed him to do so.
“We have informed the UEC about the matter, and the UEC will decide,” Khin Maung Win said.
At the time, RFA could not reach Kyaw Soe Htut for comment, though he told local media that his attorney said the language used on the posters was legal.
The candidate also said he was exercising his right to freedom of expression, and noted that his belief was in line with that of former president Thein Sein and current military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, both of whom maintain that there are no Rohingya in Myanmar.
NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt said he believes that candidates should not use such slogans on their posters.
But he added, “Because we don’t recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group in Myanmar, his campaign does not violate the election commission’s rules against using religion and nationality.”
USDP spokesman Nandar Hla Myint agreed with Kyaw Soe Htut’s reasoning, saying, “It is true that we have no ethnic group called Rohingya in our country, but his issue is for the Union Election Commission to decide.”
‘A very serious time’
The move prompted fresh calls from rights organizations that politicians not conduct racial or religious campaigns against a particular group.
“Kyaw Soe Htut’s shocking use of ‘No Rohingya’ as a campaign slogan in the ethnically and religiously diverse Latha township was discouraging,” MRG’s Thomas said.
“It seems that hate speech will again play a significant role in this 2020 election, with candidates such as the Yeomanry Development Party’s Michael Kyaw Myint having direct connections to online and offline hate speech,” she said, referring to a Buddhist nationalist activist who has agitated against the country’s Muslims.
Muslim community leader Aye Lwin, who once sat on a government advisory commission on resolving the religious and ethnic divisions in Rakhine state where the majority of Rohingya live, objected to the anti-Rohingya slogan.
“There is no evidence that we have only 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar, and nobody has said it officially other than the former military government,” he said.
“The campaign slogan implying that the Rohingya are not included among the 135 ethnic groups goes against the constitution and the Election Law because it fosters hatred,” he said.
Aung Myo Min, executive director of the human rights group Equality Myanmar, also disapproved of the language that Kyaw Soe Htut used on his posters.
Though Kyaw Soe Htut said he is exercising his freedom of expression, “he is a parliamentary candidate, [and] his campaign posters are in public places,” Aung Myo Min said.
“The current period is a very serious time concerning race and religious conflicts, so he shouldn’t use these words in his campaign,” he said.
Voting app uses derisive term
In another incident, a Myanmar voting app sponsored by the UEC and launched on Sept. 29, has come under fire for using a pejorative term to refer to Rohingya candidates.
The mVoter2020 mobile app, which includes the ethnic and religious affiliations of candidates, listed at least two Rohingya contenders as “Bengalis,” a term that the minority group firmly rejects because it implies that its members are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The ethnicity of Aye Win, also known as Dus Muhammad, a Rohingya politician and Human Rights and Democracy Party candidate from Rakhine’s Maungdaw township candidate, was described as “Bengali-Bamar” on the mobile app.
The app was developed by the election commission with support from STEP Democracy, an EU-funded project set up by Sweden’s International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), and the U.S.-based Asia Foundation.
Yadanar Maung, spokesman for Justice for Myanmar, said the app displays a bias against Rohingya candidates by implying that voters cast ballots based on candidates’ ethnicity and religious affiliations rather than their performance and experience in politics.
“Justice for Myanmar is very concerned that the EU, IDEA, and the Asia Foundation are supporting the denial of the Rohingya’s existence in Myanmar in terms of the mVoter2020 application,” he said. “This denial has been a very important factor when it comes to committing genocide against the Rohingya.”
Rights activist Nickey Diamond from Southeast Asia-based Fortify Rights said the information disclosure was a violation of the confidentiality of personal data that could be used to provoke hatred based on race and religion.
“This kind of action could incite interracial and religious riots,” he said.
Aung Myo Min from Equality Myanmar said the use of the terms “Rohingya” or “Bengali” could provoke hateful acts and further discord, and said both terms should be deleted from the app.
“There are concerns that some groups might be exploiting this information to incite fear and instigate attacks,” he said.
Myat Min Soe, the app’s developer, said the tool's data is based on information from the UEC and does not promote views based on religion and ethnicity.
“In terms of ethnicity, the voters will want to know if the candidates are one of the official ethnic groups or not, so I think ethnicity is important information for the election,” he said, noting that candidates are required to submit their ethnicity and religious affiliations on all application forms. “So these should be shown on the app, too.”
The outside funders and developers of the app sought to separate themselves from the controversy. In a statement issued on Oct. 1, IDEA said the app was developed by the UEC in line with existing laws of Myanmar and that only the election commission is responsible for its content. The EU pushed for the deletion of all controversial data from the app that could lead to discrimination, according to a Reuters news agency report.
RFA could not reach the UEC for comment, and the EU and Asia Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.
So far, the UEC has disqualified a handful of Muslim candidates from running in the election, saying that their parents were not citizens when the candidates were born.
Close eye on hate speech
Facebook — the most widely used social media platform in Myanmar with an estimated 22 million users — has formed a team to monitor the use of the social media network in Myanmar especially during the run-up to the elections.
The U.S. company previously has come under fire in Myanmar for not acting swiftly to remove hate speech from its social media platform and delete the accounts of those who spread it.
But now Facebook is expanding its work in Myanmar and preparing to help the country hold free and fair elections by forming a separate unit for broadcasting voting information to voters, removing and reducing disinformation and false claims, and banning hate speech, said Rafael Frankel, the company's director of public policy, during an online news conference on Oct. 9.
Facebook said it will ban posts that attack race and religion during the election campaign and send notices in the Burmese language to those who violate its policies.
“We are also removing posts that attack religious beliefs,” Frankel said. “We also will remove the posts that attack migrants who don’t have citizenship rights. We are removing content that says, ‘There are no Rohingyas. They are illegal trespassers.’”
Hate speech flared up on social media ahead of national elections five years ago, as well as during a military-led crackdown on the Rohingya in Rakhine state that began in August 2017 in response to deadly attacks by a Muslim militant group.
The army campaign, which included killings, mass rape, and arson, left thousands dead and drove more than 740,000 Rohingya across the border and into Bangladesh. Myanmar has been called before the International Court of Justice in The Hague to face genocide-related charges for the Rohingya expulsion.
But some hate speech experts say that Facebook’s efforts don’t go far enough.
“In the context of the election campaign, it is important to note that Facebook employs a different test concerning its community standards for politicians and candidates than it does for ordinary Facebook users,” Thomas of MRG said.
“Facebook’s position is, in essence, that voters need to know what their elected representatives and senior officials are saying and, in MRG’s experience, they are reluctant to remove even hate speech that clearly incites violence from these accounts,” she said.
Barbara Perry, director of the Center on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University in Canada, says Facebook’s measures in Myanmar are the “beginning, not the end, of the process of eliminating hate speech.”
“The worst of the worst will simply find other platforms to spread their vitriol,” she said in an email. “It is not simply a social media problem, but a cultural and deeply political problem. We have to find ways to counter the misinformation that often underlies the hateful narratives.”
Reported by Nay Myo Htun, Phyu Phyu Khine, and Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service, and by Roseanne Gerin. Translated by Khet Mar and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.