Facebook Ban of Racial Slur Sparks Debate in Burma

By The Irrawaddy 31 May 2017

RANGOON — An apparent Facebook ban on the word “kala,” which originally was used to describe “foreigners,” but has increasingly been used as a derogatory term for Muslims, has been criticized by some of Burma’s netizens and scholars.

News and entertainment website Mashable reported that Facebook may have imposed the ban last week in response to feedback from Burma’s online community, safety experts and NGOs in the country.

Nationalists often use the term kala as a racial slur against Muslims, who face widespread discrimination from nationalists in Burma. But the word transcends its links to people of Indian origin to encompass more benign meanings, such as the Burmese word for “chair”—kala-htaing—or the word for “lentil beans”—kala pae.

Facebook reportedly blocked posts with any reference to the word, drawing the ire of some netizens, many of whom wrote posts including the term kala and were temporarily barred from the site as a result.

Two Facebook users held an online protest called “We Own Kalar” on Wednesday to vent their objections to the supposed ban.

U Khin Aye, a former Burmese professor from the Rangoon University, told The Irrawaddy that the original meaning of the word was not derogatory.

“But it implies a bad sense when people use the word intentionally to insult a group of people,” said U Khin Aye.

The scholar described Facebook’s ban on any post that contains the word kala—such as kala pae—as “ridiculous.”

“Those words have long been widely-used and have no racist meanings. If we don’t use them, what else should we have to describe them?” he asked.

Historian Dr. Thant Myint-U said the term kala has been the Burmese language ethnonym for “Indians” for at least 900 years, in the same way that “Tayok” is for Chinese, and “Shan” for people who refer to themselves Tai or Thai.

“The word in Konbaung times was used more generally to refer to a perceived racial group, that included not only people from the sub-Continent, but also Persians, Arabs, and Europeans, the ‘bayingyi kala,’ including the English, sometimes the ‘tho-saung’ or ‘sheep-wearing’ kala,” he told The Irrawaddy.

“Words that are not meant to be derogatory one day can easily become offensive to some people the next. Perceptions of ethnicity are everywhere a constantly changing and often very sensitive thing. But the real problem is not the word kala but the pathology of those who might use it in a racist or demeaning way,” he added.

Lawyer U Kyi Myint said kala is an everyday term that he doesn’t consider hateful.

“Maybe Facebook is excessively concerned,” he said. “I personally think the ban may further fuel hatred. Myanmar is in a sensitive state now so I don’t want anyone to exaggerate the hate speech issue.”

According to historical records and novels, the word kala was also used to address someone with a brown complexion.

Co-founder of Religions for Peace Myanmar, Al Haj U Aye Lwin, said, “In the past, kala was not a hateful word. It depends on the intention of the speaker. But it has been used negatively lately. Today this word amounts to belittling and swearing.”

Facebook is under global pressure to clamp down on hate speech, violent threats or deliberately misleading information on their platform.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko with additional reporting by Tin Htet Paing and Kyaw Phyo Tha.