What role has social media played in facilitating the spread of hardline nationalist sentiment in Myanmar?

Francois-Guillaume Jaeck attempts to identify why, and how, Myanmar’s ultranationalism provided such fertile ground for the harmful side of social media to take root.

Tea Circle recently published an article by Ashley S. Kinseth entitled “Genocide in the Modern Era: Social Media and the Proliferation of Hate Speech in Myanmar”. In her piece, Kinseth examined the relationship between social media and conflict, as well as its recent evolution in the country. She highlights the “immense dangers of social media”, pointing out that “there has never been a more powerful tool for the rapid dissemination of hate speech.” Her piece is a veracious account, as is her regard of the dissemination of hate speech as “perhaps the most significant precursor to genocide.” This paper is not a reaction nor a response to her writing. Rather, it proposes to complement the plethora of issues that she, with many others such as Alex Aung Khant and Aye Thein, have put forward. Kinseth has produced an empirical feature, substantiated by her extensive experience working on issues related to the purloined rights of the Rohingya. Her factual observations and organic scholarship offer crucial and practical insight on what is happening in Northern Rakhine State (NRS), countrywide in Myanmar, as well as around the globe. Kinseth elaborates on her concerns regarding the toxic relationship between social media and ethnic strife – rightfully so, her worries are not misplaced.

Since the country’s transition to a “quasi-civilian” government in 2011, Myanmar’s (in)stability has been rocked by various incidents (such as continued crackdowns on student protests – including in Letpadan in 2015), with resounding consequences – all of which have given sceptics of a peaceful transition a more important voice amongst those of hope. The murder of prominent Muslim lawyer and close ally of the NLD, U Ko Ni, as well as the continued conflict in all border regions (predominantly in Kachin and Shan States) beg the question as to whether the process of democratic transformation is fully made use of. Other than the bold but unconvincing Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement of 2015 (NCA) – only signed with a select few ethnic armed groups [EAGs]) – not much has been done to substantially curb ethnic conflict and violence in the country. Since August 2017, almost 700,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine State into neighbouring Bangladesh as the Tatdamaw carried out clearance operations responding to attacks perpetrated by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). In May 2018, Amnesty International published a report accusing ARSA of killing “up to 99 Hindu women, men, and children” – accusations that ARSA vehemently denies on its Twitter.

In relation to inter-communal conflict, a recent UN investigation found that organisations such as Facebook have “played a determining role” in shaping the situation in Western Myanmar. Buddhist nationalist rhetoric has spiked as a result of liberalization and the population’s increasing access to social media. Kinseth has already established the nefarious consequences stemming from the social media-conflict nexus and has given prominence to the “even faster, more graphic” and “immersive” nature of mass media in relation to the outbreak of violence. This piece attempts to takes those questions further on the “why” and the “how” of these issues. Indeed, why and how, in the context of Myanmar’s sprouting nationalist rhetoric, have social media platforms been so instrumental in the spread of hate? In other words, how has this narrative provided such fertile ground for the dark side of social media to take root? Taking a step back, I will examine how ultranationalism, the adherence to Theravada Buddhism, and social media have indirectly acted in tandem to fuel the conflict in NRS. As emphasised by Merlyna Lim, social media, in a society undergoing democratic transition, allows for a hard-won freedom of expression, but also enables the unlimited freedom to hate.

The Rise of Nations, Imagined Communities and the Media

A nation, as defined by Anderson in 1983, is an “imagined political community” which took its roots in the Enlightenment, overthrowing the “legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realms.”[1] This community is bound together by the modern capitalist print media, which creates a common narrative characterised by a “deep” and “horizontal comradeship.”[2] It is exactly the advent of print media and capitalism, as well as the rejection of the hierarchical feudal and religious systems, which allegedly created the nation. Anderson highlights the aggressiveness of capitalism; as without it, print media would not have been so easily and prodigiously dispersed. For Anderson, the late eighteenth century marks “not only the dawn of the age of nationalism but the dusk of religious modes of thought.”[3] Religion had for millennia attempted to explain the plight of human suffering and had even furthered human fatality into “continuity.” However, in the Age of Revolutions, Anderson underlines that the decline of religious feudal thought required a “secular transformation of fatality into continuity.”[4] The ecclesiastical promise of eternal life, in the form of a hereafter, was replaced by the perpetuity of a nation – guaranteed by one’s membership of such an entity. To understand nations, it is important to understand the cultural habits they stem from. This, in turn, has laid the foundations for nationalism, the feeling of belonging to a particular nation.

Anderson’s theory of media and nationalism is today more relevant than ever. As it is the case in many other circumstances, the media (ranging from press to social media) is unavoidably linked to politics. Positively speaking, access to social media has allowed for increased political participation by the greater civilian population. However, it has also been used as a tool to inform and influence the masses in different ways – with inevitable political agendas appended. According to Lim, social media during the 2017 Jakarta Gubernatorial Election was used to capitalise on the effectiveness of “post-truth politics” where “branding has become integral to campaign strategy.” In this context, branding refers to the “psychological representation” of a product – here being the two contesting candidates, their beliefs and policy campaigns. Both sides reciprocally depicted the “other” as “outsiders” – one considered to be a defender of Islamic fundamentalism (Agus), and the other a traitor to Indonesia’s traditions (Ahok) – amongst many other denominations. Constructing a “common enemy” as a threat to a nation’s sovereignty is common practice – as it can be found in extreme-right wing discourse in the West in countries like the United Kingdom, France and the United States.

In the case of Myanmar, some ultranationalist leaders from Ma Ba Tha (the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion) and the 969 Movement (the so-called “buy-Buddhist” movement) have preached anti-Muslim sentiment against Myanmar’s Rohingya. Using hate speech and framing their sermons in order to appeal to emotions, leading monks like U Wirathu have represented the Rohingya as “dogs” over-reproducing with the goal of “overtaking” the country (a provocative statement made during a public tirade in Yangon). Adding the increasingly prominent role of social media in the equation, the consequences of these sermons are sweeping. Taking into consideration the lack of digital literacy and the reliability of information on these platforms, the spread of hate speech and deception directed towards Muslims can, and has gone viral. Following Lim’s digital theory, “algorithmic enclaves” are formed and non-conformist opinions are silenced by the mainstream “Buddhist” narrative that has been created. Indeed, research has found that social websites display information depending on one’s interests and online beliefs (see online exposure patterns). These “enclaves” are established “whenever a group of individuals, facilitated by their constant interactions with algorithms, attempt to create a (perceived) shared identity online for defending their beliefs […] from both real and perceived threats.” Furthermore, as the consequences of not adhering to this specific nationalist viewpoint are perilous – such as threats from both the military and the ultranationalist Buddhist authority – non-aligned perspectives will take the winning side.[5] Following from Anderson’s theory on nations and media, Lim argues that the combination of nationalist sentiment and new forms of communicative apparatuses produces “tribal nationalism”. Consequently, social media used in this way can “deepen [further] divisions among social groups in society” and “amplify animosity and intolerance against each other”. David Scott Mathieson echoes a similar sentiment when discussing the “perils of unfiltered information on social media”. Seymour M. Hersh refers to this as “stovepiping”: the elevation of “primary reports to prominence without the necessary verification and contextualising”. In Myanmar, in certain circumstances, this can easily be the case – especially because it is inseparably linked to the country’s historical background and post-independence nationalist sentiment. How has social media enabled the boundless spread of this hate?

The uncontrollable spread of ultranationalist rhetoric

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, “everything is done through Facebook in Myanmar” and it has “turned into a beast” – with the “ultra-nationalist Buddhists […] inciting a lot of violence and a lot of hatred against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities.” An important point to consider, highlighted by Matthew Walton and Susan Hayward, are the socio-economic circumstances of the country. After fifty years of military rule and repression, ethnic groups feel “entrenched wariness, if not outright fear and hostility” towards the Bamar majority, the central government as well as amongst themselves. Walton and Hayward, in their report, also point out that as a result of ethnic divisions, as well as varied cultural and historical factors, nationalism in Myanmar  has “become increasingly conflated with Buddhist religious identity.” In other words, to be a true citizen of the country is to be both Buddhist and ethnic Bamar. As a consequence, similar to the polarization during Jakarta’s 2017 elections, non-Buddhist or non-Bamar groups are more easily labeled as “threats” to the sovereignty of the nation. Further to this, the lack of education and knowledge on religion are widespread, fabricating heavy religious bias especially in regards to the Muslim Rohingya.

The lack of access and relative distrust in mainstream media have made people turn towards word of mouth and social media in order to gain information. Indeed, as shown by Tina Burrett’s study on democratisation and media, a local editor explained that “for young people in particular, news shared by friends on Facebook is their main source of information.” Furthermore, he adds that “they do not question the origins or authenticity of what they read online.” This becomes problematic when the issue of fake news is considered – especially when an “in-group” is attempting to antagonise an “out-group”. For example, two people were killed and “scores injured and many Muslim houses and businesses burned” in the 2014 Mandalay riots – sparked by rumours alluding to a Buddhist woman having been raped by a Muslim man. After investigations were conducted, however, this was found to be untrue. A number of local journalists interviewed in Burret’s study claimed that the “lack of capacity for critical thinking among audiences” represented a crucial challenge for Myanmar’s media – as “audiences were more likely to trust information posted online by their friends than news appearing in the professional media.” This dearth is directly linked to decades of military rule, as critical thinking was strongly suppressed and completely absent from the curriculum – even at the university level. The military junta’s dictatorship lasting generations has had a palpable effect on the education system and the way people think. Buddhist Bamar citizens, benefiting from the attribution of full citizenry, would rather – and understandably so – side with mainstream thought backed by the military and prominent Buddhist monks. In complement with the disaffecting nature of nationalist rhetoric, the hatred of the “other”, social media’s rapid-circulatory capacity has furthered the reach of this hate in a country that has “essentially made a digital leap forward in communications” – consequences of which, in Alex Aung Khant’s words, “have yet to be examined.”

Another important aspect to consider when dealing with Myanmar’s ultranationalism is the eminence of Theravada Buddhism. Eighty-nine percent of the total population are fervent followers of this strand of Buddhism that, in the past, had always enjoyed authority in the country. In the olden days of the Burmese kingdoms, from the Pagan Kingdom to the Third Burmese Empire under the Konbaung dynasty, the monastic order (Sangha) maintained a close relationship with the ruling monarchy. The arrival of the British after the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1826 saw a strong decline in monastic sovereignty as the Crown “sought to separate the political and religious realms.” Further to this, the British, being more acquainted with populations from the Indian subcontinent, appointed officials of Hindu or Muslim descent in governmental positions. As a consequence, with the import of Indian labour from the British Raj as an accessory correlative, the “perceived weakening of Buddhism, in concert with Christian missionising, fuelled a Burmese nationalist and Buddhist revival movement in the early twentieth century.” Hence, after the formation of the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (the State-appointed clergy) in the 1980s, Buddhist authority attempted to refill the gaps left by the decline of Buddhism in the country. Bearing in mind the colonial era which emasculated Bamar sovereignty and the will to maintain Buddhism as the cultural anchor to all Burmese, the presence of the Rohingya in Rakhine State is perceived as a threat by the firebrand section of the population. Indeed, monks like U Wirathu have passionately proclaimed that there is a “‘Muslim conspiracy’ to conquer Burma through economic exploitation and interfaith marriage.” Similarly, Ashin Sada Ma, a leading monk of the 969 Movement, fears that “some Bengali Muslims are terrorists and have a mission to Islamise our country.” This anxiety is frequently echoed in social media – where information is indiscriminately absorbed. The authenticity of these claims are irrelevant in this context, as they are made by Buddhists of a “respected social status […] and it is assumed that they have correct information.”

The consequences of these assertions are many. They include discrimination as well as episodes of inter-communal conflict in Rakhine State and other parts of the country. It is the faith in what is perceived as “real” teachings of the Buddha, in conjunction with the over-reliance on social media, that has exacerbated inter-communal enmity. Indeed, the effect of actions happening in reality, once considered through the prism of social media, undergoes a multiplying factor which results in greater-scale consequences back in reality. In other words, anti-Muslim sermons by prominent Buddhist monks can lead to violence in themselves. When the preaching and subsequent results of it are virally shared on platforms such as Facebook, the likelihood of widespread strife is greater – whether it be in terms of numbers, or geographical locations. The exponential effect of social networks, acting as amplifiers, have without a doubt played a role in the spread of this resentment toward the Rohingya. In Marzuki Darusman’s words, the chairman of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, “it has […] substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict […] within the public” (See also Mr. Darusman’s statement at the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council).

This Myanmar-Kompromat style of defamation, tending towards Islamophobia, has also found its roots in the country’s politics. As defined by Amanda Taub, Kompromat is not only used in Russian politics – it is a “broader attempt to manufacture public cynicism and confusion in ways that target not just one individual but an entire society.” In Myanmar, analogous ways apply. This method benefits those in power who tend to counter their insecurities with the propagation of false information and the demonisation of the “other”. Furthermore, the proliferation of the Buddhist hardline discourse has come to be widely seen as “institutionalised” by the international community. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s men on the Bangladeshi border, notably under the now-abolished Nasaka, have utilised oppressive tactics long before the 2017 crackdown in order to keep tight control over the Rohingya – most of whom are denied citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law and the 2008 military-drafted Constitution. Further to this, a controversial statute called the “Race and Religion Protection Laws” was passed by Parliament in 2015 under pressure from nationalist groups like the Ma Ba Tha. These laws include the Religious Conversion Bill, the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill, the Population Control Healthcare Bill, as well as the Monogamy Bill. This specific set of laws has fueled anti-Rohingya rhetoric in practice, as well as on social media platforms – as seen when U Wirathu praised these developments as official intention “to preserve the sanctity of marriage, to safeguard from the danger of Jihadi Muslims who are marrying many women in an effort to establish a Muslim nation.”

The institutionalisation of this discrimination and social media campaigns of disinformation, intended or not, have often “’deliberately blended accurate and forged details’ to sow distrust and confusion.” Proof of whether these digital efforts were deliberately used by the military and ultranationalists to incite the perpetration of crimes against the Rohingya has yet to be definite. Nonetheless, on a global scale, it is clear that “Facebook, Google, and Twitter function as a distribution mechanism, a platform for circulating false information and helping find receptive audiences.” This was largely found to be the case in Myanmar – and as observed by Kyaw Sint, Facebook will need to not only adopt mitigating mechanisms that can (more effectively) curb the spread of hate speech, but also proactively encourage the spread of tolerance, one way or another.

Looking ahead

In recent years, the government of Myanmar has undertaken an unprecedented endeavour towards reform and liberalisation in order to curb extreme poverty, the derelict state of the economy and constant ethnic strife – unfortunate consequences of the hangover of decades of military dictatorship. Generally speaking, there have been clear and humble attempts by all sectors of society, some in conjunction with international cooperation programmes, to promote the respect of fundamental human rights, suppress the bane of transnational organised crime and the amelioration of the judicial system. However, the hardship experienced by the Rohingya and the continuing state of conflict involving all armed groups – notwithstanding the NCA – have created much scepticism. The recent arrest of two Reuters journalists reporting on crimes against the Rohingya, charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, has also sparked doubt as to whether the government is being completely transparent and taking responsibility for its actions.

Another key issue, as I have examined, is the problem posed by the prominence of social media in all spheres of society. The far-reaching effect of social platforms, operating in combination with the spread of hardline Buddhist rhetoric and the scattering of fake news has exacerbated an already existing difficult situation encountered by Myanmar’s ethnic groups. “Algorithmic enclaves” facilitate the emergence of tribal nationalism, which takes effect in the digital world but materializes in nationalist sentiment. Whether it be authentic or not, quoting Burrett, “the first version of a story that appears sets public opinion.” Because of the lack of trust between different ethnic groups, the deficiency in digital literacy and the cultural coercion exercised by fire-brand Buddhist groups, the population is trapped into a corner where the expression of an alternate point of view is subdued.

Nevertheless, social media does not have to be a tool solely exploited by hardline nationalist movements. It is also used by peace activists and human rights defenders advocating for overarching reform and the rehabilitation of the rule of law. Some of these projects involve Pan Zagar (Flower Speech) and Team Myanmar (a television and radio show funded by the European Union), both of which aspire to make use of the penetrating effect of social media in Myanmar’s social strata. Matthew and Amy Smith, from Fortify Rights, are stressing the need to “get it right” and use “all the tools at our disposal” to put an end to human rights abuses – and this includes film and social media. However, information will need to be processed rigorously and take into account the political climate surrounding the time of its release. Many challenges lie ahead for the citizens of Myanmar – and where media is concerned, rumour management and the cessation of hate speech are some of the many stones needed to pave the way home for the displaced Rohingya.

[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso 1983) 49-50.
[2] Ibid, 50.
[3] Ibid, 51.
[4] Ibid.
[5] See Noelle-Neumann’s sociological study the “Spiral of Silence”.

François-Guillaume Jaeck is currently completing his MA in Conflict, Security and Development at King’s College London, focusing on Nationalism and Insurgency. Prior to this, he read a BA in Burmese and Law at SOAS and interned with the European External Action Service in Yangon.

Image Credit: Tim Ngo on Flickr Creative Commons