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Published: January 27, 2015

Fighting hate speech in Myanmar: are mobile and digital technologies the right tool?

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Anis Chouchane is a conflict management and international development professional focusing on humanitarian policy, peacebuilding and governance reform in Africa and the Middle East. Anis graduated from the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) where he received his Master of Arts degree in international relations and international economics.

 

In October 2014, GISF published an article about the consequences of online dangerous speech in Kenya. The paper was part of a wider discussion on the impact that communications technology can have on the humanitarian operational environment, and the authors of this article provided insights about Umati, a project that was designed to monitor blogs, forums, online newspapers and social media platforms for inflammatory speech. Umati was launched prior to the Kenyan general elections of 2013 out of concerns that mobile and digital technologies could trigger renewed post-election violence.

The Umati team announced last year that they will be implementing pilot projects in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Myanmar. The latter is slowly democratising after decades of dictatorship and repression. Nonetheless, Burma’s Rohingya Muslims, a small fraction of the population, have been repeatedly killed and attacked since religious conflict erupted in June 2012.

The looming 2015 elections have heightened religious tensions in Myanmar. Hate speech has intensified and became more common and aggressive on blogs, web forums and Facebook pages. Hateful and inflammatory comments have served political groups as a tool to dehumanise Muslims. Considering the country’s political, social and religious context, here are two challenges that the implementation of Umati or other similar projects might face:

Political Commitment

Fighting hate speech necessitates an active commitment by the government, as was the case in Kenya. In Myanmar, hate speech is being used by the state to marginalise the Muslim minority and has incited anti-Muslim violence. The proliferation of online hateful speech is mainly the result of the rising influence of extremist-nationalist Buddhist movements. A report published last year by Fortify Rights, an independent human rights movement, revealed that discrimination against Rohingya Muslims is an institutionalised policy by the state. Unless the government of Myanmar ceases the support of radical figures such as monk Ashin Wirathu, implementing a programme that monitors and sanctions inflammatory speech would be ineffective.

Mobile use and online engagement

Social media is heavily used in Kenya. The number of users for platforms such as Twitter and Facebook continues to grow. Unlike Kenya, Myanmar’s Internet and mobile phone usage remains among the lowest in the world. In addition, censorship remains a tool to silence activists. Last summer, President Thein Sein reaffirmed that actions will be taken against those who threaten the stability of the state. Moreover, radical Buddhist activists are active both online and off. They distribute inflammatory speech through propaganda DVDs and street sermons to escalate violence against Muslims. Therefore, it is essential to examine if an online tool is able to record the full scope of dangerous speech in the country.

Ending hate speech with flower speech?

Panzagar or ‘flower speech‘ is a coalition of civil activists who operate online as well as distribute posters, pamphlets and stickers in public spaces. Similar to Kenya’s offline civic engagement movement called ‘NipeUkweli‘, Panzagar uses online tools such as Facebook stickers that show an animated character with a mouth full of flowers to fight negative messages on social media platforms. Moreover, local youth groups in Kachin State and Mandalay started street campaigns that reached 56 cities and towns to mobilise against hate speech. The coalition has also held workshops and distributed notebooks in public schools. The flower speech example shows that combining Umati’s technology with offline activism might be an efficient solution to fight hate speech in Myanmar.

 

Sources

Using ‘flower speech’ and new Facebook tools, Myanmar fights online hate speech, the Washington Post, 24 December 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/using-flower-speech-and-new-facebook-tools-myanmar-fights-online-hate-speech/2014/12/24/3bff458c-8ba9-11e4-ace9-47de1af4c3eb_story.html

Monitoring Online Dangerous Speech in Kenya – Insights from the Umati Project, European Interagency Security Forum 2014, October 2014, http://commstech-hub.eisf.helpful.ws/uploads/4/0/2/4/40242315/nanjira_sambuli_and_kagonya_awori_monitoring_online_dangerous_speech_in_kenya_insights_from_the_umati_project_eisf_october_2014.pdf

Hate Speech Endangers Burma’s Muslims, U.S. Campaign for Burma, 18 February 2014, https://uscampaignforburma.wordpress.com/2014/02/18/hate-speech-endangers-burmas-muslims/

Burmese leader defends ‘anti Muslim’ monk Ashin Wirathu, BBC News, 24 June 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23027492

The number of social media users in Kenya, HapaKenya, Undated, http://www.hapakenya.com/number-of-social-media-users-in-kenya/

Background reading

Policies of persecution, Fortify rights, February 2014, http://www.fortifyrights.org/downloads/Policies_of_Persecution_Feb_25_Fortify_Rights.pdf

 

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