Hate Speech Ignited: Understanding Hate Speech in Myanmar

Executive Summary

The 2015 elections were historic as they ushered in the first civilian-led government in Myanmar in half a century. What could have been the beginning of a new era of democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms for all, instead saw a rising tide of hate speech, ultranationalism, grave human rights violations, and escalating conflicts, which were reminiscent of the hallmarks of repressive military rule in the country for decades. From the 2017 military operations in Rakhine State, to the ongoing armed conflicts in Chin, Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan States, civilians—particularly those from ethnic and religious minority communities—have continued to be subjected to gross human rights violations by the Myanmar military (the Tatmadaw) and borne the brunt of state oppression.

Myanmar’s human rights record today remains dismal and the persecution of its ethnic and religious minority communities, particularly the Rohingya, has garnered global condemnation and driven international accountability efforts, including at the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. These recent steps toward ending impunity for the Tatmadaw’s atrocities should have been welcome news in a country that has long struggled for democracy and human rights. Instead, the reaction from inside Myanmar has been one of denial and rejection. The civilian government and the Tatmadaw have become more aligned than ever before.

This report examines the role hate speech, rampant misinformation campaigns, and ultranationalism have played in the resurgence in oppression and human rights violations and the new alignment of the government and military in Myanmar. In analyzing the trends and patterns of hate speech in Myanmar, the report identifies a number of mutually reinforcing constructed narratives aimed at advancing Buddhist-Burman dominance at the expense of ethnic and religious minorities in the country. The report also catalogs a number of key drivers of hate speech, including the role of ultranationalist groups, the political and business interests of the elite, and socio-economic factors such as poverty, education, and historical divisions; these key drivers help explain the root causes of hate speech as well as how systemic and entrenched narratives of hate and discriminatory structures remain. The report also tracks how online and offline channels have been used to spread hate speech.

The report also highlights the wide-ranging and problematic effects of hate speech, from the distrust, psychological trauma, and violence it has spawned to the targeting of civil society and attacks on freedom of expression, which are so critical to combatting hate speech. The report demonstrates how hate speech and discrimination affects all ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar, while also highlighting the particularly acute impact on the Rohingya and Muslims, who have become a rallying point for ultranationalists and have been subjected to especially violent targeting as seen in the Rohingya crisis and its aftermath. Finally, the report evaluates whether Myanmar has met human rights standards with regards to hate speech, concluding that the country has failed to do so.

Much of this report’s findings stems from the analytical insights and experiences with hate speech of 22 Myanmar CSOs, including Burma Monitor (Research and Monitoring) and Progressive Voice. The International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School (“the Clinic”) helped capture the local groups’ knowledge, experience, and expertise over the course of a year through interviews and two multi-day convenings held in January and December 2019. More than 35 individuals from CSOs and the Clinic met to discuss hate speech in Myanmar in detail. Many of the CSOs have been or are at risk of being targeted by ultranationalist groups as a result of their work and/or their identity as ethnic and religious minorities.

Despite the risks, local groups felt the need to share their experiences and insights on the history of hate speech in Myanmar, current key narratives of hate, the drivers of that they have observed, and effects they have experienced themselves and in their communities. Indeed, as human rights defenders (“HRDs”), activists, and civil society organizations (“CSOs”) working to address grave human rights concerns in Myanmar, they have been at the frontlines in efforts to combat hate and its effects.

Narratives of Hate

The report identifies six constructed hate speech narratives, all of which have been interlinked and reinforce an overarching meta-narrative of Buddhist-Burman dominance:

  1. Both ethnic minority groups and non-Buddhists threaten race, religion, and country;
  2. Islam in particular poses an imminent threat, as a “violent” foreign religion that seeks to overpower Buddhism in Myanmar;
  3. Women are in need of protection and particularly vulnerable to the predatory attacks from Muslim men, seeking to convert them and their children;
  4. Against these threats, military strength is essential to protect the nation’s borders, unity, and continued existence;
  5. A biased and misinformed international community is targeting Myanmar, interfering with its sovereignty; and
  6. Those that question or challenge the aforementioned narratives—human rights defenders, activists, and CSOs—are “race traitors” and foreign agents who are equally dangerous to the nation’s sanctity and security.

Key Drivers

Hate speech in Myanmar is not simply the product of individual bigotry and intolerance, and the aforementioned narratives were not created in a vacuum. Rather, hate speech has been systematically promoted and disseminated by powerful interests that benefit from the constructed narratives and the resulting division and conflict in society. CSO members identified a number of key drivers of hate speech in Myanmar beyond ultranationalists groups. Those drivers include the military, political leaders, business interests, and religious leaders. While the Rohingya crisis has diminished the military’s stature internationally, the crisis has had the opposite effect domestically, strengthening the military’s legitimacy and allowing its nationalist message to reach people who had fervently opposed the military dictatorship in the past.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government has also been largely ineffective in addressing the rise of hate speech. It has failed to adequately act against ultranationalist groups and has instead succumbed to military and political pressure to distance itself from the Muslim community. Several CSO members interpreted the government’s inaction as condoning hate speech and, even worse to at times exhibit its own nationalist biases. Statements from various government ministries and departments, including the President and State Counsellor’s Office, highlight for example the depth of officials’ animus and discriminatory attitudes toward the Rohingya community.

Channels and Forms of Dissemination

With the rapid rise in Internet connectivity, propagators of hate speech have increasingly turned to online channels to disseminate their messages. Facebook, the main social media platform in the country, has played the most significant role. Many in Myanmar perceive information circulated on Facebook as reliable due to limited digital and social media literacy, cheap and easy access to Facebook, and the use of the social media platform by government institutions and major media outlets in Myanmar as their principal communication channel to the public. Relative user anonymity, difficulties associated with monitoring and removing content in a timely manner, and the dominant status of Facebook has made the platform a powerful avenue for the dissemination of hate speech.

Despite diligent monitoring attempts from CSOs and some remedial measures taken by Facebook, significant challenges remain for tracking and stopping hate speech on the platform. One major challenge has been that removing specific posts, accounts, or pages does not necessarily prevent further circulation of the posted content. A second challenge has been technological discrepancies between codes and displayed texts that make content detection more difficult. A third challenge has been ensuring that content moderators hired by Facebook fully understand Myanmar’s political context and are free of personal biases and prejudices. A final challenge has been the increased use of alternative online channels that may be harder to monitor.

Hate speech in Myanmar has also been not limited to the online realms. In addition to spreading hate speech through online channels, ultranationalist groups like 969 and Ma Ba Tha have used more traditional methods to disseminate their message of hate. This “offline culture of hate” has been propagated through large scale nationalist rallies and other media such as DVDs, books, journals, pamphlets, and speaker carts.

Impact on Ethnic and Religious Minority Communities and Civil Society

The impact of hate speech and ultranationalism on minority communities, civil society, and activism within Myanmar has been profound. The narratives of hate mentioned above has fomented distrust and violence. The hostile environment has also further marginalized ethnic and religious minority communities. The Myanmar government’s failure to hold ultranationalist groups accountable for perpetuating hate speech has only exacerbated the problem.

While ultranationalist groups have been permitted to disseminate their messages of hate and operate with impunity, CSOs and HRDs that speak out on behalf of ethnic and religious minority communities have been threatened by both state and non-state actors. They report increased restrictions, diminished civil society space, and crackdowns that have made it more difficult for activists to carry out their work. Obstacles have included physical violence, threats to their security, and government surveillance. Furthermore, activists and HRDs who have been critical of the government and the military have been arrested and prosecuted using a myriad of laws designed to silence dissent.

Women activists, journalists, human rights defenders, politicians, and leaders in minority communities have been particularly vulnerable to gendered attacks. These attacks include threats of physical and sexual violence, sexual harassment online, lurid sexist language, the posting of demeaning imagery and morphed sexual images, and the sharing of personal information online without their consent. Overall, the increasingly antagonistic and restrictive environment for civil society actors has diminished hope and discouraged activism. CSOs report for example self-censoring what issues they cover and report on.

An International Human Rights Approach to Addressing Hate Speech and Protecting Free Expression in Myanmar

International human rights law and standards provide guidance on a way forward for Myanmar that would combat hate speech while protecting freedom of expression and civil society space. They offer multi-pronged approaches that combat hate speech in a comprehensive way that include criminal sanctions, civil and administrative remedies, alongside non-legal tools to tackle root causes of intolerance.

Despite lacking a universally recognized definition for “hate speech”, human rights frameworks make clear that incitement to discrimination, hostility, violence, or genocide as examples of “illegal types of expression”. Article III(c) of the Genocide Convention states that “direct and public incitement to commit genocide” prohibits and criminalizes the most extreme form of hate speech. As a contracting party, Myanmar is obligated to uphold its duty to prohibit these types of hate speech, prevent and punish genocide.

Given that freedom of expression is a fundamental right, however, any criminalization of speech must meet a high threshold. The Rabat Plan of Action on the Prohibition of Advocacy of National, Racial or Religious Hatred that Constitutes Incitement to Discrimination, Hostility or Violence lays out six factors on whether particular speech may rise to the level of incitement warranting criminalization: context, speaker, intent, content and form, extent of the speech and likelihood/imminence of action against the targeted group. One only needs to examine the examples that has been provided in this report and elsewhere to see that hate speech in Myanmar has at times taken this most virulent of forms. Some hate speech has been designed to provoke, incite violence, discrimination and hatred that has in turn fueled violations of its ethnic and religious minority communities’ human rights and in the case of the Rohingya, it has enabled genocidal violence and atrocity crimes. Unfortunately, not a single domestic case has been brought against known disseminators of such hate speech. Instead, Myanmar’s domestic laws have been weaponized against HRDs and activists’ legitimate forms of speech.

Human rights standards require that any restriction of legitimate expression must meet all three of the following conditions: 1) legality, 2) legitimacy, and 3) necessity and proportionality with the onus upon the state to justify the restriction rather than the individual claiming their right to expression. The law must be sufficiently precise to enable someone to regulate his or her conduct. It also requires that the law must be subject to regular legislative or administrative processes and should not confer unlimited discretion to the authorities. Ultimately in Myanmar, the broad laws, their misapplication, the complete lack of judicial independence, and abuse of state power have all infringed on the right to freedom of expression of numerous CSOs, HRDs, the media, and communities. While state and non-state actors have been able to spread hate speech, activists must contend with: lengthy pre-trial detentions, protracted long trials without bail, expensive monetary fines, being charged across different townships for one act of protest, and having to serve consecutive sentences as opposed to concurrent ones. Myanmar needs to rectify these rights violations and not subject those expressing legitimate forms of speech to criminal, civil or administrative sanctions.

Corporations and Hate Speech

Under international law and standards, Myanmar also has an obligation to protect civilians from third party harms, including those involving corporations and hate speech. Myanmar has not done so. Despite Myanmar’s failure to regulate corporations, however, human rights standards state that corporations should take steps themselves to prevent contributing to human rights violations. Furthermore, companies who may be complicit in genocide or other gross human rights violations could be held accountable in some jurisdictions if they have contributed to abuses. The international human rights community has already noted the role of social media corporations in human rights violations in Myanmar with the FFM directing recommendations at Facebook and other businesses active in the country for their failure to prevent the occurrence of hate speech on their platforms.

Facebook states that it is: increasing Myanmar content reviewers, improving proactive detection of hate speech and taking more aggressive action on networks of accounts. Only time will tell whether such measures prove to be effective at curbing hate speech, especially ahead of the 2020 elections, given their potential as a flashpoint for further incitement and offline violence. Regardless, Facebook should apply the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, integrate human rights into their platform, and ensure that it: (a) conducts periodic reviews of the impact of the company products on human rights; (b) avoids adverse human rights impacts and prevent or mitigate those that arise; and (c) implements due diligence processes to identify, prevent, mitigate, and account for how they address their impacts on human rights and have a process for remediating harm. Facebook needs to meaningful, sustainable and inclusive consultations with CSOs and HRDs, especially with ethnic and religious minorities on the way forward, to contribute to in-country digital literacy efforts, and be vocal in their zero tolerance for incitement and users violating their community standards.

Recommendations

Local civil society groups in Myanmar have already taken steps to monitor, document, and counter the rise of hate speech and ultranationalism, often at great risks to themselves. It is essential that the government of Myanmar, the military, international community, and social media companies support these efforts and to combat hate speech effectively to prevent further violence and persecution. Myanmar CSOs, including Burma Monitor (Research and Monitoring) and Progressive Voice, and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School call on:

To the Government of Myanmar

  • Prosecute state and non-state perpetrators that incite violence against ethnic and religious minorities;
  • End selective application of laws that chill speech and silence CSOs, HRDs, and the media, including dropping all charges and release HRDs, activists, journalists, students, and political prisoners that have been convicted under Myanmar’s laws criminalizing freedom of expression;
  • Ensure that the government’s social media monitoring team is transparent and not used to further surveil activists, media, HRDs, and CSOs.
  • Amend or repeal laws that restrict freedom of expression, including but not limited to the Telecommunications Law, the News Media Law, the Printing and Publication Law, the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens, and Burma Official Secrets Act, and the Penal Code;
  • Enact a hate speech law that is in accordance with international human rights standards and not an additional tool to criminalize free expression; and
  • Set early warning systems for potential political and election-related violence targeting ethnic and religious minorities.

To the Myanmar military

  • Stop participating and contributing to circulation of hate speech that targets ethnic and religious minorities and promotes armed conflict in Myanmar;
  • Immediately end persecution the of ethnic and religious minorities civilians and cease perpetrating grave human rights violations and atrocities; and
  • End all endorsements or support for ultranationalist groups that perpetuate narratives of hate.

To the International Community

  • Support local CSOs and HRDs who work to monitor and counter the rise of hate speech and ultranationalism; and
  • Support ongoing international accountability efforts, including at the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court, to ensure perpetrators of gross human rights violations and atrocities are held to account.
  • Hold the Myanmar government to its human rights obligations and pressure it to protect ethnic and religious minority civilians in conflict areas and end grave human rights violations and atrocities

To Social Media Platforms, Telecommunication Companies, and Other Businesses operating in Myanmar:

  • Adhere to international human rights standards, including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, particularly to avoid, mitigate, and address adverse human rights impact;
  • Make sure that business operations/products do not allow or facilitate hate speech or incitement of violence;
  • Rigorously and independently monitor speech that calls for or incites violence in accordance with international laws and standards, preserving digital copies of such content for the eventual use by international accountability mechanisms, including the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar; and
  • Provide digital literacy training for Myanmar users and consult with local CSOs and HRDs, particularly with those advocating for protection of human rights and monitoring hate speech, to combat and respond effectively to new hate speech trends.

Download full report.

Read the Burmese executive summary.

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