The United Nations human rights envoy on Myanmar has decried the “pervasive nature of hate speech” targeting Muslims by government officials and school textbooks in the Buddhist-majority country, according to a new report she wrote for the U.N. Human Rights Council.
“The pervasive nature of hate speech is alarming, particularly that it is used by senior government officials,” U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee wrote in a report issued Tuesday, citing remarks made by Aung Ko, the country’s minister for religious and cultural affairs.
Aung Ko reportedly said in November 2018 that “the followers of an extreme religion take three or four wives and have families with 15 or 20 children” — a reference to Myanmar’s Muslim minority.
The following month, he reportedly said that his comments were not addressed to all Muslims but to the “Bengalis,” a derogatory term for the country’s stateless Rohingya Muslims who are considered illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar denies the Rohingya citizenship and subjects them to systematic discrimination.
A brutal military crackdown in 2017 in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state left thousands of Rohingya dead and drove more than 730,000 to Bangladesh where they now live in sprawling displacement camps.
The Myanmar government defended the crackdown as a necessary measure to defeat Muslim militants operating in the region, and denied that its forces committed human rights atrocities against Rohingya civilians despite credible evidence to the contrary.
Aung Ko went on to say that the Rohingya population was exploding and they were aiming to march to western Myanmar’s Rakhine state from Bangladesh, Lee’s report noted.
“Such incendiary comments by a senior official are entirely antithetical to the government’s stated aim of reconciliation and desire to address the problems of hate speech and incitement to violence,” she wrote.
She also expressed alarm over Myanmar’s elementary school curriculum that includes lessons and textbooks containing discriminatory and incendiary material.
Her report cited an example from a fourth-grade lesson on nationalistic and patriotic spirit that said, “We loathe those of mixed blood, for they prohibit the progression of a race.”
“Teaching children these ideas promotes racial superiority and communal disharmony,” Lee wrote, calling on officials to remove all “incendiary passages” from all textbooks.
In December 2017, the Myanmar government barred Lee from entering the country to assess the rights situation for the rest of her tenure after it deemed a previous mission report she issued was biased and unfair.
Officials denied her request to visit the country this January, saying that her trips are counterproductive to the people of Myanmar, Lee said in her report.
RFA’s Myanmar Service was unable to reach officials from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party for comment on the report.
Aung San Win, permanent secretary of the religious affairs ministry, said officials have prepared a draft hate speech law which the military-led Ministry of Home Affairs is working on issuing.
‘Government’s policies are not clear’
Myanmar attorney Aung Thein pointed out that because Aung Ko is a government minister, people believe that what he said about Muslims is the government’s opinion.
“Both [the Muslim and Buddhist] communities were angry and unhappy because of what he said,” Aung Thein said.
Referring to Lee’s comments on hate speech in school textbooks, the attorney said it was disappointing for "a poem" containing discriminatory language to be included in the country's elementary school curriculum, especially during the current civilian-led NLD administration and the previous quasi-military government under former president Thein Sein.
Such language was also not included in school textbooks during the time when a military junta ruled the country, he said.
With regard to Aung Ko’s comment, social activist Thet Swe Win said it is a question of whether the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture works on behalf of all religions or only Buddhism, the majority faith.
“The government hasn’t done anything seriously on this kind of issue, though the international community has been criticizing it,” he said.
“The ministries need to talk more about working together on such matters,” he said, referring to the words in the school textbooks that Lee took issue with.
The education and religious affairs ministries have fallen short when it comes to reviewing what should or should not be included school textbooks, Thet Swe Win said.
“It means that the government’s policies are not clear, and it is a shame to have criticism from abroad,” he said. “I want to tell the government that we are being criticized because we are stupid.”
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.