RANGOON — At a street corner in Rangoon’s Kamayut Township, a young man does what would have been odd in his country just three or four years ago—he lowers his head, fixes his eyes on his smartphone, swipes the screen and smiles.
He is probably in his 20s, dressed casually in a black striped shirt and dark jeans, which makes him stand out in the crowd of people wearing traditional longyis. Still, with the phone in hand, he is not uncommon among the Burmese of his generation, especially those on the streets of downtown Rangoon these days.
More and more young Burmese are joining their smartphone-toting peers elsewhere in the world, as their country transitions from nearly five decades of strict military rule.
The opening of telecommunications services in Burma has presented opportunities to connect to the global village. There is a strong hope that access to information can help the democratization process, especially during this transition period.
However, the online platform has also been used by some groups who, many fear, are trying to set malicious agendas by posting insensitive hate speech or remarks.
Recent outbreaks of sectarian violence between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims in the country—and between the majority Burman ethnicity and other minority ethnic groups—have driven some online users to take sides, resulting in inflammatory statements.
Some political observers, drawing lessons from history, suspect that religious clashes have happened when those in power feel threatened or challenged. This was common during the British colonial era. The view now is that the old dogs of the former military regime may want to further divide the fragmented country, while the pro-democracy movement is trying to hold it together.
Facebook, the most popular social media site in Burma, is becoming a new political battleground for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the biggest opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which are both gearing up for the 2015 elections.
It is estimated that about 1 percent of Burma’s population of nearly 60 million are Facebook users, according to Nay Phone Latt, executive director of Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation (MIDO). It can be easier to contact a friend through Facebook than email, as many people in the country are able to access the social media side with their smartphones.
For Ye Naing Moe, director of Yangon Journalism School, although Internet penetration is just 1 percent of the population, those who have access to the Internet are influential. Online activities are increasing among the ruling elites, media practitioners, military officers and educated monks—people who can change the political and social landscape.
“Online people are influential people. They are able to shape the society. In small towns only a few people can go online, those who can serve as the eyes and ears of their communities,” Ye Naing Moe said.
Among the country’s big-name Facebook users is President Thein Sein, who actively communicates with the populace through his Facebook page, which features photos of his official events and statements. He has 11,800 followers.
Another USDP leader, Deputy Minister of Information Ye Htut, has 47,000 Facebook followers. Opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has 221,000 followers on its official Facebook page.
According to statistics from various sources released last year, 29 percent of global Facebook users are mainly young people in the 25 to 34 age bracket, while 50 percent of users between the ages of 18 and 24 check Facebook when they wake up in the morning. Burma’s statistics are unavailable, but Internet usage is coming on strong in the country.
Thinzar Shunlei Yi, 21, is among those riding this wave following the opening up of telecommunications services in the country. She surfs the Web using her smartphone and checks her Facebook or email account in the morning.
However, the online life remains a distant reality for the majority of Burmese society.
Many in Rangoon earn US$1 a day, while a desktop computer with an LCD screen and operating system ready is about 400,000 kyats ($400) and a Lenovo Thinkpad is $1,300.
Even Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a fresh graduate of the Institute of Education who comes from a military family, can only own her very first phone with an Android 2.1 Eclair operating system. The phone cost a relatively moderate $100 and was given to her by her uncle as a gift this year.
“Unfortunately, it is version 2.1. I can’t use it as well as those belonging to other youths,” she said. She had to fork out about $ 10 for an initial sign-up of 2G service.
Currently, Android phone users are using the 4.3 Jelly Bean version.
On Bogyoke Aung San Road in Rangoon, people squat in front of a line of mats displaying goods, looking for scrap computer parts or testing out the latest smartphones on sale.
Before 2010, people in Burma needed to pay almost $3,000 for a subscription identity module, or SIM card. Now, they can buy one with 3G access on the black market for slightly over $400.
As mobile Internet service becomes more commonly available, many issues related to Internet usage have also arrived at Burma’s doorsteps.
The Double-Edged Sword
While Burma may be seen as a “late bloomer” in terms of online connectivity, it has caught on fast and furious. And like the rest of the world, it is a major player in determining the political climate—spreading news and influence, and fueling emotions.
Tension between Buddhists and Muslims that turned violent in Arakan State last year and spread to central Burma this year has wormed its way into the online space.
Hate speech circulating on Facebook has raised the eyebrows of many. Buddhists and Muslims are attacking each other openly online, at times inciting people to commit violent act against those of other faiths.
The failure of the government to contain the violence has also raised questions.
In late August, violence erupted in the Sagaing Division, an hour’s drive from Mandalay, Burma’s second-largest city after Rangoon. In the clashes, the homes of Muslim residents were burned down.
Clashes between Muslims and Buddhists have left about 200 dead and more than 250,000 displaced since last year.
“People say that social media or Facebook is like the walls of a toilet. You know in the very poor areas in our country, the toilet walls are very dirty. People write whatever they want on the walls,” said Khin Lay, founder of the Triangle Women Support Group.
Cheaper Internet access and mobile phones have provided a “license” for people from all strata of society—any background, any education level—to post “dirty” words online, she said.
Many online users who have harbored deep hatred toward people of other faiths now have a channel to vent their anger or provoke and stir sentiments.
Online hate speech is a worrying trend, and many media practitioners or social activists in Rangoon said they believed other forces were also at play. Could it be a pre-planned scheme to set back the democratization process in the country?
Nay Phone Latt pointed out that there are big groups with huge funding and backgrounds that intentionally create hate speech to incite violence around the country. “Our Constitution states that the military can seize power when there is violence,” he said.
Real or Manufactured?
Nay Phone Latt expressed doubts over “sources” of hate speech, because when online users post inflammatory remarks, they often get 150 shares within two to three minutes.
“The first source [of hate speech] is not from ordinary people,” he said.
Thiha Maung Maung, project coordinator of Yangon Journalism School, said some Facebook pages were camouflaged—as football fan pages or with humorous content—to attract followers. The pages then change their “personalities,” incorporating more nationalistic content as time goes by.
“These kinds of Facebook accounts and pages are very alike,” he said. “The status they have or photos they post are similar. It seems like the work of the same person or the same group of people.”
Thinzar Shunlei Yi felt uneasy when she saw a doctored photo of Suu Kyi with her face attached to the body of an exposed woman.
“There are two types of people—those who support the government, and those who support Aung San Suu Kyi,” she said. “They are fighting each other. The president and Aung San Suu Kyi are big figures. When someone posts something on Aung San Suu Kyi’s side, the pro-government users will say something nasty. They really hate her.”
Coming from a military family, Thinzar Shunlei Yi has two groups of Facebook friends. The critical university friends consist of Burman and other ethnic groups, while her high school friends enjoy their social status as members of military families.
As she was involved in organizing the International Day for Peace (IDP) and participated in a peace march last year, she says some of her old friends questioned her activist work. Once, a junior left the group she led because he believed it was better to stay away from politics. “He may have thought it was better not to be involved,” she said. “It’s not that he was frightened, but in his mindset, it was best to get away from politics.
“His parents are still government workers, but so are my parents. Sometimes, I feel guilty, too, if my activities affect my dad’s work. I’m not sure yet. So I decided that I won’t show up in media or the public, though I can’t help but be involved in political affairs as an active youth.”
Peter, 33, is also troubled by online hate speech, saying he was attacked on cyberspace when he called on others to discuss the issue rationally.
However, he believes that not everything is bad in the virtual world. People from different religious and political backgrounds can use online media as a platform to engage and negotiate, instead of hurling abusive words at one another in an attempt to express themselves, he said.
“They could use online media to find some common ground amid their differences, but it hasn’t happened that way,” he said.
But, he added, “They can’t find any common ground on the Internet. They just post abusive things, and when some people try to rationalize, they will just say ‘Don’t talk rubbish, I don’t believe in that.’”
Peter, who studied in the United Kingdom, pointed out that religious and political crises, natural or manufactured, have been common since Burma’s colonial days.
“Whenever people resisted or there was a political change, the government would start a Buddhist and Muslim crisis,” he said. “If you study our history, in the 1930s and after independence, there were many religious and political crises.
“That’s why we suspect the recent religious crisis was created by some groups who don’t want political changes in Myanmar. And online media have become a tool for such unscrupulous acts.”
Khin Lay from the Triangle Women Support Group said some of the tension between Buddhists and Muslims in the country could be traced back to economic issues, with Muslims—who make up about 5 percent of the county’s population—often perceived as wealthier than Buddhists.
She said a blend of nationalism and Buddhism by the outspoken 969 movement leader, U Wirathu, who claims Muslims are outsiders, had stirred up people’s emotions.
“These days, what the majority of Burmese say is that we don’t want democracy, we want our religion,” she said. “In the past, the popularity of the NLD was high, but currently it’s going down. Why? It [online hate speech] can be a tool and weapon of government against the opposition NLD, to bring their dignity down and reduce their popularity.
“Before the crisis, especially in the 2012 by-election, the NLD won a lot. And the Rakhine [Arakan] crisis happened just after that.”
Peter said there was growing criticism against Suu Kyi and the NLD for not being outspoken enough of the religious conflict in the country. He said this had affected Suu Kyi’s popularity, as she is expected to be a voice of conscience in the country.
Some analysts have said Suu Kyi has not taken a stronger stance against the violence due to the coming presidential election in 2015, as the majority of electorates are Buddhist.
NLD spokesperson Nyan Win denied that the crisis had affected the party’s popularity.
Freedom of Expression Versus Social Harmony
While irked by recent hate speech, Nyo Oho Myint, a peace facilitator of the Myanmar Peace Center, a center set up under the President’s Office, defended the online exchanges, saying the Burmese people were merely exercising their newfound freedom of expression after five decades of political suppression.
“Myanmar people are socially conservative but prefer liberal ideas politically,” he said. “They are outspoken and do not look at the consequences, thus these are not actually hate speeches, because they have no hidden agenda.
“Many people are using their freedom of speech now to express their feelings.”
However, he said he was concerned about unverified information spreading over social media.
Questions have arisen over how to allow greater freedom of expression while maintaining social harmony.
Striking a Delicate Balance
“We are freer now, but we are not safe,” said Nay Phone Latt, adding that the telecommunications bill, which provides for the establishment of a regulatory body for the ICT industry, is a reflection of the old mindset of the “new” government” seeking to extend control.
The bill is copied from the 2004 Electronic Transaction Act (ETA) that prescribes severe punishment for users who post content that may affect national security or the people’s interest. The related terms are vague and open for interpretation, Nay Phone Latt said.
Nay Phone Latt was arrested by the former regime for disseminating information about the 2007 military crackdown on the “Saffron Revolution” to the outside world. He was sentenced to 15 years of jail under the ETA but was released last year after receiving a presidential pardon.
MIDO submitted its input to the government on the draft bill, hoping to push for an independent regulatory body, as well as the removal of the seven to 15 years of jail time allowed.
The bill was passed by the Lower House and the Upper House, and will become law after the president signs it, said Nay Phone Latt, adding that he had not seen the final draft.
Deputy Minister of Information Ye Htut said via email, “The government notices that when we lift restrictions on the Internet, the emergence of racial and religious hate speech becomes a social problem and has been a factor in recent communal violence.
“Now we are working with civil society organizations for a social awareness campaign for Internet users about hate speech.”
Ye Htut did not elaborate on whether the government would exercise control over social media.
Asked about a Rohingya Muslim activist, Than Shwe, who was arrested in mid-August for posting a photo of security forces clashing with Muslims in Arakan State, the deputy minister said it was a crime to spread religious hate speech, warranting action against Than Shwe.
“We prefer an awareness campaign, and not another law, to control social media,” Ye Htut added, noting that the Ministry of Information and the US embassy in Burma had jointly conducted a workshop about the issue of hate speech on social media in July.
Although the level of maturity among most Internet users leaves much to be desired, Nay Phone Latt is of the view that the government should not control online expression, saying the people can regulate themselves.
“We can regulate each other. We can create an online culture among ourselves,” he said.
“I have 5,000 friends on Facebook. If they make any hate speech, I will give them a warning; if they do it again the next time, I will ‘unfriend’ them. Now I can safely say that my friends are not among those making hate speech.”
Nay Phone Latt also said Burma’s law enforcement and justice systems were not yet equipped to handle cases related to cyber crime.
“If you are a victim of a cyber crime and you tell the police, they don’t understand what you are saying,” he said.
Due to the relatively small online community in Burma, some would say the impact of online hate speech remains minimal.
However, a lack of institutions or organizations to respond to the growing challenges could affect the country’s online space in view of the expected boom of the telecommunications industry.
Norway’s Telenor will launch its voice and data services in the second quarter of 2014, covering 78 percent of the population, while Qatar’s Ooredoo will build 10,000 public access points nationwide, putting an estimated 84 percent of the population online by 2019.
To some, the Internet is a gateway to the world; to others, it is a political weapon. With the low Internet literacy of the Burmese people, the online space could be dictated by a small group of people, serving their own interests.
The opening of cyber space should not be done on a piecemeal basis, critics say. They say it needs to be open and transparent to empower the people constructively, and that all parties are equally responsible in deciding whether the online space is a platform for engagement or a battleground for ruling elites to gain political mileage.
Chen Shaua Fui is one of the six journalism fellows of the 2013 SEAPA fellowship program. This article is produced for the program, which carries a theme “Freedom of Expression – Challenges to Internet Government in Southeast Asia.” It was originally published on www.fz.com in September 2013.