Social media in recent years has proven that hate speech can be amplified multi-fold, and the case is no different in Myanmar, with the Rohingya Muslim community under fire. The case of the beleaguered people has been analysed a lot in the news and there have been many calls for local and global leaders to help them, however, the social aspect of the problem needs to be tackled. What is happening to this community has been seen on social media in lighter shades in Pakistan, with Ahmadis, Shias, and many other minorities being abused or ridiculed, though the scale of the hate and violence in Myanmar is shocking. More than 310,000 people have fled to Bangladesh in recent weeks, with more trapped on the border, amid reports of the burning of villages and extrajudicial killings.
Panzagar operates from a small downtown apartment in Yangon and is the new and fastest growing movement in Mayanmar to battle hate speech. Panzagar is a civil society organisation dedicated to countering the tide of online venom with flower power or, more accurately, flower speech. In 2013, Nay Phone Latt founded Panzagar, which means “flower speech”, in response to the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment that has spread across the nation in the past five year, to literally put flowers in people’s mouths.
Sometimes referred to as the land of tech and temples, Myanmar has seen enormous growth in Internet penetration, mobile-phone adoption and social-media usage in the past few years. Facebook has been one of the most effective ways of spreading hate with a large number of xenophobic Buddhist Facebook accounts created under pseudonyms. The comments that have been directed against the Burmese Muslim community show an extreme level of disregard for human dignity. One comment on Facebook reads, “We should kill every Muslim. No Muslims should be in Myanmar.”
90 per cent of Myanmar’s population follows Theravada Buddhism. Monkhood is deeply revered here, and beyond reproach. After 2011, many monks started to believe Myanmar’s Buddhist identity was under threat. These views are widely accepted, creating a mentality of victimhood and besiegement in the Buddhist community. Monks claim the country is at risk from “Islamisation”, echoing the attitudes of many other Buddhist nationalist leaders. Despite the absence of evidence there was widespread paranoia that the minority Muslim Rohingya population in the west of the country was, and is, attempting to carve out a separate state for themselves, and that Muslim population growth is outstripping that of Buddhists. This type of nationalism has not just devastated the Muslim community but put a dent in the reverence and respect that was reserved for the monks of Burma nationally and internationally. This is not new, this type of religiously motivated fascism is underway in India, and has a spectre in Pakistan too. The political leadership in Myanmar, in India, in Pakistan, and even in the US, is part of the problem and conforms and conflates public opinion.
A major question then, when it comes to the Internet, is what does this sudden opening up of the Internet mean for a national community like Myanmar’s that has been oppressed for decades? People get to switch from an environment of oppression to the open and chaotic online experience. The availability of absolutely free speech and the option of anonymity have caused a dramatic rise in hate speech on Facebook, where old ethnic and religious tensions are pouring forth. Because there was no political space to sort out these issues before the end of the rule of the military junta in 2011, these problems have suddenly erupted in physical and online violence. Here is a country that has been fed the news by the state for years. They haven’t been exposed to real, critical news. According to Clare Lyons of the BBC’s international charity Media Action in Myanmar “there’s so much negative portrayal of different ethnicities. And for Muslims there’s pretty much no portrayal unless it’s around the political issues.” Internet hate speech has a limited reach in rural areas where most of the violence has already erupted, but that is expected to change dramatically as access to the Internet is growing by leaps and bounds.
While the Panzagar Flower Speech campaign is a great example of Burmese reacting against hate speech and everything must be done to support such movements on social media, but hate is easier than love. And thus, freedom should have limitations if your freedom harms others. What should not be said in public to a person, should not be allowed on the internet either.
The founder of Panzagar, Nay Phone Latt, spent four years in jail for his online activism under the rule of the military. He knows that regulation of speech needs to come from the people and not from the government, and that is true for most cases. A society that cannot respect human life in public spheres like social media, cannot produce leaders who will. Laws that put Latt behind bars still exist, so the power of free speech that has been given to the people can be taken back.
And this points to a very difficult social problem. Society will not change, if political leaders do not guide the change. Leaders wont encourage change if they don’t have popular backing. Though many would love for State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi’s mouth to be stuffed (very kindly) with flowers for the Rohingyas , she is a dud. The solution will come from building national tolerance to generate popular demand for people to demand legislation that give these Muslims citizenships. Social media can be a tool for this, but those who hold flowers may not be able to survive those who hold guns.