Government Quickly Distances Itself from Facebook Bans on Military

By San Yamin Aung 28 August 2018

YANGON—The government moved quickly on Monday to deny that it had any role in or advance knowledge of Facebook’s decision to ban the pages and accounts of several senior Myanmar military officials including Army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

Speaking to reporters in Naypyitaw late on Monday evening, President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay said that soon after Facebook made the announcement, he received calls from military officials, including a number of lieutenant-generals, asking if he had any information about the account closures.

Amid heavy condemnation for failing to combat hate speech against Rohingya and other Muslims, the social media giant on Monday announced it was removing 18 Facebook accounts, one Instagram account and 52 Facebook pages of military individuals and organizations “to prevent the spread of hate and misinformation” on the platforms.

Military commander-in-chief Sen-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and Myawady TV — the military’s propaganda television network — were among those whose pages and accounts were banned.

“Neither the government nor [the government’s] social media monitoring team played a part in [the decision by Facebook],” U Zaw Htay said.

“We are concerned that misunderstandings that the government played a role in the decision will hinder the government’s efforts on national reconciliation,” he said.

The government has asked Facebook to more fully explain the bans.

Facebook’s action came hours after the UN Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission on Myanmar released its report, which found that the actions of Myanmar’s military leadership against the Rohingya had “genocidal intent”.

“We want to prevent them from using our service to further inflame ethnic and religious tensions,” Facebook said in its announcement. The pages and accounts’ content violated its Community Standards, it added.

Former Lieutenant-General U Thaung Aye, a Lower House lawmaker for the military proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), described Facebook’s move as “one-sided”, given that the military had launched several investigations into accusations of human-rights violations and taken action against the perpetrators.

“The Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] is a really strong institution in our country. Those [Facebook] accounts were used by this institution to report its good activities. Myawady TV is also a news agency reporting in line with the [media] policy for all people… To me, it is like insulting the sovereignty of our country. The government should respond decisively,” he said.

Veteran journalist and Myanmar analyst Bertil Lintner said the Army chief would likely be much more upset about being excluded from Facebook than at the prospect of being brought before the International Criminal Court, because the ban is something that really impacts him directly.

Followed by millions of the Army chief’s supporters and other members of the public, the removed accounts and pages were the military’s main channels of communication with the people.

Some believed the Facebook ban would make it more difficult for observers to monitor the military, the military chief and the activities and interactions among its supporters. However, U Myint Kyaw, a member of the Myanmar Press Council, downplayed the move’s impact, pointing out that the military already has its own websites.

He added that one positive impact of the ban is that it would remove a platform for lobbying by certain groups who were trying to influence people.

In his view, Facebook’s removal of the military’s accounts and pages was a political move aimed at an organization, rather than an attempt to curb hate speech and disinformation in Myanmar.

“The impact won’t be significant. But it could harm their dignity. And if the military assumes the government was behind it — as there were meetings between Facebook and the Myanmar government before — it won’t be good for military-government relations,” he said.

Ma Mon Mon Myat, a doctoral student at the Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace at Payap University, said Facebook’s removal of the blue checkmark verifying Sen-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s account was intended as an act of “naming and shaming”. She said that taking such action against an individual for being accused of human rights abuses in a UN report was childish, despite its stated aim of targeting hate speech.

However, she added that she welcomed the closure of other propaganda accounts with millions of followers that were spreading hate speech and contributed to the promotion of disinformation in the country.

Yangon regional lawmaker Ko Nay Phone Latt, a free-speech advocate who has campaigned against online hate speech, pointed out that it was a weakness that Facebook has been used as the primary official channel for news releases and public communications, adding that the government should also consider the need to strengthen the country’s independent media.

He didn’t think Facebook’s removal of military accounts would reduce the spread of hate in the country.

“Indeed, hate speech mainly spreads via fake accounts and pages, rather than verified accounts. Without monitoring those accounts systematically and taking action against them, [hate speech] won’t be reduced,” he said.

Moe Moe contributed additional reporting from Naypyitaw.