‘Hate Speech Pours Poison Into the Heart’

By San Yamin Aung 9 April 2014

Well-known Burmese blogger and activist Nay Phone Latt launched the Panzagar (flower speech) campaign last week, which aims to oppose hate speech, a practice of attacking a person or group on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

Inter-communal violence has rocked Burma since 2012, giving rise to virulently anti-Muslim rhetoric among some Facebook users. Hate speech has been used online to increase pressure on international humanitarian groups, such as Médicine Sans Frontièrs, that provide aid to the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority. The nationalist 969 movement of Buddhist monk U Wirathu has been accused of spreading hate speech against Muslims.

Nay Phone Latt became a well-known free speech advocate in Burma after he was arrested for online activism in 2007 and sentenced to 20 years under the Electronic Transactions Law. He was released as part of a mass amnesty in January 2012. He is the current executive director of Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO) which provides local ICT training in rural areas. This week, he spoke to The Irrawaddy about his new campaign.

Question: What made you initiate this campaign?

Answer: The conversations on online are becoming bad. Some conversations are really rude and use abusive language towards women. When we advocate for free speech, reducing hate speech is included. … Speech calling for hitting or killing someone is hate speech, and can spread hate among people and is a risk for society… It is the wrong use of freedom of speech. I am worried about that because it is not only spreading on social media but also by some writers and [Buddhist] monks who are spreading hate speech publicly.

I discussed this issue together with other civil society groups, including MIDO, in order to start an anti-hate speech campaign. First we released the slogan, “Let’s restrain our speech not to spread hate among people” and we initiated the campaign named the “Panzagar” (flower speech) movement.

Q: When did you start Panzagar movement and how will it be implemented?

A: The Panzagarmovement began on April 4. We distribute stickers, posters and pamphlets in Rangoon and also in the provinces. We are trying to spread the campaign’s message among the public first, but powerful speakers who are more in touch with the public are specially targeted. If the public gets the message, they will oppose those who are using dangerous hate speech. Also, we want to gradually convince the extremists’ groups who are spreading the hate speech to stop. ….

And we made a song. The audio file of that song will be released before Thingyan, the Myanmar Water Festival, and at the festival, singers will sing that song together and we will distribute it. During the Water Festival, we will go around the town with cars to promote the campaign.

Q: What do you think of the current spread of hate speech in Burma?

A: Everyone has right to free speech but not to spread dangerous [hate] speech, we need to moderate ourselves without control by others. Both restrictive laws and [hate] speech are dangers to freedom. I have seen hate speech on social media but the impact is not only on the internet, sometimes, it spreads into society outside. And not only in social media there is hate speech; it is also included in some public talks, religious sermons and print media. Those groups that seem to be spreading [hate speech] intentionally greatly affect violence and conflicts happening in our country….

If people hate each other, a place will not be safe to live. I worry about that most for our society. In some places, although they are not fighting, hate exists within their heart because they have poured poison into their heart for a long time [through hate speech]. It can explode in anytime.

Q: Can you explain what types of hate speech there are?

A: Most people think only of religious hate speech when we are talking about hate speech. But actually there are other cases. When a gay couple held a 10th anniversary wedding ceremony last month, some commented on social media calling for police to arrest them and even for people to hit them … So, they are not only writing their own comments but also they are inviting others [to act violently].

Q: Is the Pazagar movement only for laymen, or will you also focus on the 969 Buddhist monks who are at the forefront of spreading hate speech?

A: We will first distribute [campaign material] among laymen. And after that, we will meet with powerful speakers and explain this campaign to them. We will ask for their commitment not to speak hate speech and make a video recording of their messages for this campaign. Monks can also be included [in our campaign], as can celebrities, ministers and singers.

Q: Do you think there are other groups who are intentionally spreading hate speech?

A: Those who spread hate speech about religious issues intentionally are using online tools and other ways. Now during the Hlegu Township violence [of April 4], they uploaded all past [inter-communal] incidents such in Meikhtila and others in order to stimulate the Buddhist-Muslim conflict. They want to create unstable situations in society. They also use print media [some of] which are publishing with the intention to create violence. And also they hold public talks which are spreading dangerous speech. They are not just criticizing other religion, but also urging to wipe out other religions.

These are some observations from which we can assume that it is controlled by a group, also because on some [Facebook] pages it is obvious that they are distributing hate speech systematically. And also when they upload some material on social media, they got many likes and shares on Facebook in just a few minutes which proved that they are doing this in a group and they have background support. We can also assume that they have financial assistance because in some cases they distribute hate speech on social media and outside via print and CD. They have manpower, background support and financial assistance, and even power. … In some cases, those who made conflicts should be arrested, but they are not arrested.

Q: Can the prevention of hate speech harm freedom of speech?

A: I don’t want to ask the government to control hate speech because if they control the hate speech, they will want to control all [opinions]. So it can harm freedom of expression. I prefer to monitor hate speech and report about that than limiting it through law. Also, if the government wants to collaborate in this campaign, we will accept. There is a need to explain ourselves clearly because some think that we are trying stopping the freedom of speech. Panzagar campaign is not prohibiting speaking, we just request people not to make hate speech that can harm society.