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In Burma, the Internet is the new political battleground

Chen Shaua Fui is one of the six journalism fellows of the 2013 SEAPA fellowship programme. This article is produced for the programme, which carries a theme Freedom of Expression - Challenges to Internet Government in Southeast Asia.

At a street corner in Kamayut Township, Yangon, a young man does what would be seen as freakish in his country just three or four years ago – he lowers his head, fixes his eyes on his smart phone, swipes the screen and smiles at it.

He is probably in his 20s, dressed casually in a black striped shirt and dark jeans, which makes him stand out in the crowd of people wearing the traditional longyis (cloth worn as a long skirt). Still, he is not uncommon among the Burmese of his generation, especially those on the streets of downtown Yangon these days.

More and more young Burmese are joining their smartphone-toting peers elsewhere in the world: a generation that cannot imagine their lives without their all-in-one gadget.

Amidst the traditional or even nostalgic atmosphere, a traveller would get the feeling that Myanmar is finally catching up with the outside world after strict military rule of over five decades.

The opening up of the telecommunications services has presented opportunities for the people to connect to the global village. There is a strong hope that access to information and having-the-right-to-choose values can help the democratisation process, especially during this important transition period.

However, this new and exciting online platform has also been used by some groups who, many fear, are trying to set malicious agendas by posting insensitive hate speeches or remarks.

The inherent divisions in the country between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims and Rohingyas (also known as Bengali by most Burmese), as well as the majority Burman and other minority ethnic groups, have driven online users to take sides, resulting in inflamatory views on the sectarian clashes that flared up in March last year.

Political observers, drawing lessons from history, suspect that religious clashes were following the pattern in the past: They happened when those in power felt threatened or challenged. This was common during the British colonial era up till the military rule after Independence.

The prevalent view is that the old dogs of the regime may want to further divide the deeply fragmented country, while the pro-democracy movement is trying to hold it together.

Facebook, the most popular social media site in Myanmar, is believed to have become a new political battleground for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the biggest opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD), which are gearing up to the 2015 presidential election.

It may come as a surprise to an outsider who finds it easier to contact a Burmese friend through Facebook than email, as many are able to access the site using smartphones.

It is estimated that around 1% of Myanmar's population of nearly 60 million are Facebook users, according to Nay Phone Latt, the executive director of Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation (MIDO).

For Ye Naing Moe, director of Yangon Journalism School, although the internet penetration is just 1% of the population, those who have access to the internet are influential people. Online activities are increasing among the ruling elites, media practitioners, military officers, educated monks – people who can change the political and social landscape in the country.

“Online people are influential people. They are able to shape the society. In small towns where only a few people can go online, those who can, serve as the eyes and ears of their communities,” Ye said.

Among the big-name Facebook users is President U Thein Sein who actively communicates with the populace through his Facebook page, which features photos of his official events and statements. He has 11,800 followers.

Another popular USDP leader, Deputy Minister of Information Ye Htut, has 47,000 Facebook followers. Opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi's party National League for Democracy (NLD) official page has 221,000 followers.

According to the statistics from various sources released last year, 29.7% of global Facebook users are mainly young people in the 25-34 age bracket, while 50% of users who are 18-24 go to Facebook when they wake up in the morning. Myanmar's statistics are unavailable, but internet usage is defnitely coming on strong in the country.

Thinzar Shunlei Yi, 21, is among those riding this wave following the the opening up of the telecommunication services. She surfs the internet using her smartphone, and checks her Facebook or email account in the morning.

However, the online life remains a distant reality for the majority of the society.

Many in Yangon earn a meager US$1 a day, while a desktop computer with an LCD screen and operating system ready is about 400,000 kyats (about US$ 400) and a Lenovo Thinkpad US$ 1,300.

Even for Shunlei, a fresh graduate of Institute of Education who comes from a military family, can only own her very first phone with Android 2.1 Eclair version. It cost a relatively moderate US$ 100 and was given to her by her uncle as a gift this year.

“Unfortunately, it is version 2.1. I can't use it as well as those belonging to other youths,” Shunlei said. She had to fork out about US$ 10 for an initial sign-up of 2G service.

Currently, Android phone users are using the 4.3 Jelly Bean version.

A stroll down on a street adjacent to the Bogyoke Aung San Road, one couldn't help but notice the vibrant mood in the air. People squatted in front of a line of mats displaying goods, looking for scrap computer parts or testing out the latest smartphones on sale.

Before 2010, an individual needed to pay almost US$ 3,000 for a subscription identity module or SIM card. Now, they can buy one with 3G access for slightly over US$ 400. Although this is still unbelievably expensive, many are able to own a SIM card now.

As the mobile Internet service becomes more commonly available, many issues related to the internet usage have also arrived at Myanmar's doorsteps.

Internet – the double-edged sword in Myanmar

WHILE Myanmar may be seen as a “late bloomer” in terms of online connectivity, it has caught on fast and furious. And like the rest of the world, it is a major player in determining the political climate – spreading news, influence and fuelling emotions.

The hatred between the Buddhists and Muslims which turned ugly and violent in Rakhine state and spread to central Myanmar since March last year has wormed its way to the online space.

The hate speech circulating on Facebook has raised the eyebrows of many. Buddhists and Muslims are attacking each other openly online, at times inciting people to commit violent act against those of other faiths.

And the failure of the government to contain the violence has also raised questions.

As of end-August 2013, another clash has erupted in the Sagaing region, an hour's drive from Mandalay, Myanmar's second-largest city after Yangon, where a Muslim's house was burned down.

According to the Physicians for Human Rights, some reports released in May and June 2013 showed that anti-Muslim clashes and reprisal attacks have displaced more than 250,000 people, and destroyed over 10,000 houses, scores of mosques and a dozen monastries.

“People say that social media or Facebook is like the walls of a toilet. You know in the very poor areas in our country, the toilet walls are very dirty. People write whatever they want on the walls,” said Khin Lay, founder of Triangle Women Support Group.

Cheaper Internet access and mobile phones have provided a “licence” for people from all strata of society – any background, any education level – to post “dirty” words online, Khin said.

Many online users who have harboured deep hatred towards people of other faiths now have a channel to vent their anger, provoke and stir sentiments, albeit irrationally.

Online hate speech is a worrying trend, and many media practitioners or social activists who talked to the writer in Yangon felt that something else was also at play. Could it be a pre-planned scheme to set back the democratisation process in the country?

Nay Phone Latt, the executive director of Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation (MIDO), pointed out that there are big groups with huge funding and backgrounds that intentionally create these hate speeches to incite violence around the country.

“Our constitution states that the military can seize power when there is violence,” said Nay.

Real or manufactured?

Nay expressed doubts over “sources” of the hate speeches, as whenever a certain user posted some inflammatory remarks, he or she will get 150 shares within two to three minutes, which is unbelievably fast.

“The first source (of hate speech) is not from the ordinary people,” he added.

Thiha Maung Maung, project coordinator of Yangon Journalism School, noticed the modus operandi of certain Facebook pages which confirms his belief that many hate speeches are pre-planned.

He explained that some Facebook pages was camouflaged as football fan pages, or with humourous content to attract followers. The pages then change their “personalities”, incorporating more and more nationalistic content as time goes by.

“These kind of Facebook accounts and pages are very alike. The status they have or photos they posted are similar. It seems like the work of the same person or the same group of people,” Thiha observed.

Shunlei felt uneasy when she saw a doctored photo of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (Daw is an honorific, literally meaning “aunt”) with her face attached to the body of an exposed woman.

“There are two types of people – those who support the government and those who support Aung San Suu Kyi. They are fighting each other. The president and Aung San Suu Kyi are big figures. When someone post something on Aung San Suu Kyi's side, the pro-government users will say something nasty. They really hate her,” she said.

Coming from a military family, Shunlei has two groups of friends on her Facebook. The critical university friends consisted of Burman and other ethnic groups, and her high school friends who enjoy their social status as members of military families who study at the military high school.

As she has been involved in organising the International Day for Peace (IDP), and had participated in a peace march last year, some of her old friends questioned her activist work. Once, a junior left the group she led as he felt that it was better to stay away from politics.

“He might think it was better not to be involved with the group I led. It's not that he was frightened, but in his mindset, it was best to get away from politics.

“His parents are still government workers, but so are my parents. Sometimes, I feel guilty too if my activities affect my dad's work. I'm not sure yet. Thus, I decided that I won't show up in media or public though I can't help but to be involved in political affairs as an active youth,” Shunlei shared her dilemma with the writer.

Peter, 33, a civil society member is also troubled by the hate speeches online that had inflamed the emotions of people, and he was attacked (on cyberspace) when he called on others to discuss issues rationally.

However, Peter believes that it is not all bad on the virtual world. People from different religious and political divides can use online media as a platform to engage and negotiate, instead of hurling abusive words at one another in an attempt to express themselves.

“They could use online media to find some common ground amidst their differences, but it hasn't happened that way.

“They can't find any common ground on internet. They just post abusive things and when some people try to rationalise, they will just say 'Don't talk rubbish, I don't believe in that',” he added.

Peter, who studed in the United Kingdom, pointed out that religious and political crises, natural or manufactured, are common since the colonial days.

“Whenever people resisted or there was a political change, the government would start a Buddhist and Muslim crisis. If you study our history, in the 1930s and after independence, there were many religious and political crises.

“That's why we suspect the recent religious crisis was created by some groups who don't want political changes in Myanmar. And online media have become a tool for such unscrupulous acts,”said Peter.

The deep-rooted problem between the Buddhists and the Muslims could be traced back to the economic power struggle, in which the rich Muslims were suppressing the poor Buddhists, Khin said, citing the cases of many Buddhist women marrying Muslims and converting to Islam to uplift their living standards.

Also, the blend of nationalism and Buddhism by the outspoken 969 Movement leader Ashin Wirathu, who claims that Muslims are outsiders and thus should be driven out from this Golden Land, has successfully stirred up the emotions of the people.

“These days, what the majority Burmese say is that we don't want democracy, we want our religion. In the past, the popularity of NLD is high but currently is going down. Why? It (online hate speech) can be a tool and weapon of government or opposition of NLD to bring their dignity down and reduce their popularity.

“Before crisis, especially in 2012 by election, NLD won a lot. And the Rakhine crisis happened just after that,” he said. NLD won more than 90% of the seats in the by election.

Ye also observed a similar trend. For many years, he said, the people were very critical of the ruling party, but now the monks were ironically rallying in support of them.

According to Peter, there's growing criticism against Daw Suu for her and NLD's silence on the religious conflict spreading around the country, and that has affected her popularity as many expected her to be the voice of the conscience.

Some analysts believed that her silence is due to the coming presidential election because the majority of the electorates are Buddhist.

President U Thein Sein had acted quickly to suggest the Rohingya Muslim be deported from the country, a stand that won the approval of 5,000 monks in Mandalay who had marched in support of his statement openly.

However, NLD spokesperson U Nyan Win denied that the crisis has affected the party's popularity.

Growing pains of going online

While irked by the hate speeches, Nyo Oho Myint, a peace facilitator of the Myanmar Peace Centre, a centre set up under the President's Office, defended the online exchanges.

The Burmese people are merely exercising their new found freedom online after five decades of political suppression, Nyo said.

“Myanmar people are socially conservative but prefer liberal ideas politically. They are outspoken and do not look at the consequences, thus these are not actually hate speeches, because they have no hidden agenda .

“Many people are using their freedom of speech now to express their feelings,” Nyo said.

However, he did express concerns over the nature of social media through which unverified information spread like wildfire.

The budding but fragile democracy that Myanmar is experiencing, as well as the nature of the online platform and social media are the “growing pains” of this Golden Land.

And this begs serious discussions on maintaining social harmony while allowing a bigger freedom of expression at the same time.

Striking a delicate online balance in Myanmar


“WE are freer now, but we are not safe.”

This is the observation of Nay Phone Latt, the executive director of Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation (MIDO).

Nay opined that the Telecommunication Bill that provides for an establishment of a regulatory body for the ICT industry is a reflection of the old mindset of the “new” government who sought to extend control and harsh punishment for end users.

The bill is copied directly from the 2004 Electronic Transaction Act (ETA) that prescribed severe punishment of the users who posted content that may affect national security or the people's interest. And the related terms are vague and open for interpretation, he said.

Nay was arrested by the former regime for disseminating information about the 2007 military crackdown on the “Saffron Revolution” to the outside world. He was sentenced to 15 years of jail term under the ETA but was released in 2012 after receiving a presidential pardon.

MIDO submitted its input to the government on the draft bill, hoping to push for an independent regulatory body, as well as the removal of the 7-15 years' jail term punishment.

The bill has been passed by the Lower and Upper Houses recently and will become law after the president signs it. Nay has not seen the final draft yet.

In a brief email reply to this writer, Deputy Minister of Information Ye Htut of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) said: “The Government notices that when we lift restriction on the internet, the emergence of racial and religious hate speeches is becoming a social problem and are a factor in recent communal violence.

“Now we are working with civil society organisations for social awareness campaign for internet users about hate speech.”

However, Ye Htut did not elaborate if the government will exercise its control on the social media.

Asked about Rohingya Muslim activist Than Shwe who was arrested in mid-August for posting a photo of security forces clash with Muslims in Rakhine, he said under the penal code, it is a crime to spread religious hate speech or actions. Hence action was taken againt Than.

“We prefer an awareness campaign, and not another law to control social media,” Ye Htut added, noting that the Ministry of Information and the United States Embassy in Myanmar jointly conducted a workshop on hate speech on social media in July.

Although the level of maturity of the general internet users leaves much to be desired, Nay is of the view that the government should not control online expression, as the people can regulate themselves.

“We can regulate each other. we can create an online culture among ourselves.

“I have 5,000 friends on Facebook. If they make any hate speech, I will give them a warning; if they do it again the next time, I will 'unfriend' them. Now I can safely say that my friends are not among those making hate speeches,” Nay said.

On the other hand, Nay also believed that Myanmar's law enforcement and justice systems are not yet equipped to handle cases related to cyber crime.

“If you are a victim of a cyber crime and you tell the police, they don't understand what you are saying,” Nay said.

Due to the relatively small online community in Myanmar, some would say the impact of online hate speeches remains minimal.

However, the lack of institutions or organisations to respond to the growing challenges could seriously affect the country's online space in view of the boom of the telecommunication industry.

Norway's Telenor will launch its voice and data services in the second quarter of 2014, covering 78% of the population while Qatar's Ooredoo will build 10,000 public access points nationwide putting 84% percent of its population online by 2019.

To some, the internet is a gateway to the world; to others, it is a political weapon. With the low internet literacy of the people, the online space could be dictated by a small group of people, serving their own interest.

The opening up of the cyber space should not be done on a piecemeal basis, critics say. It has to be something open and transparent that would empower the people constructively. All parties are equally responsible in deciding whether the online space is a platform for engagement or a battleground for ruling elites to gain political mileage.

This article was originally published on www.fz.com in September 2013 in the following links: Internet - the new wave sweeping Myanmar (Main-Part I); Internet - the double-edged sword in Myanmar (Main-Part II); Striking a delicate online balance in Myanmar(Main- Part III).

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