Freedom of Hate Speech

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 23 September 2013

RANGOON — What we need is freedom of speech, not freedom of hate speech. We need freedom of expression, not freedom of destruction. But in our country, Burma, what we have seen with sheer disappointment recently is that we do not always get what we need.

Over the past year, Burma’s government has been praised by the international community for easing media censorship, but hate speech and destruction have proliferated more quickly than press freedoms. We saw some of the worst carnage last year, when communal strife broke out between Muslim and Buddhist communities in Arakan State, but widespread destruction has continued into this year, even as recently as last month.

In Htan Gone village, Sagaing Division, a mob of about 1,000 Buddhists last month torched dozens of homes and shops, most of which belonged to Muslims. Police officers and authorities did not stop the anarchic attacks on the minority group for many hours. Before they intervened, innocent people were targeted and their properties were burned down.

Witnesses told The Irrawaddy that the rioters sang the country’s national anthem as they rampaged late on Aug. 24, only dispersing early the next day, after security forces arrived. In previous instances of communal violence elsewhere in the country, slow intervention has also allowed enough time for thugs or mobs to destroy the homes and businesses of Muslim families. To some extent, it has allowed freedom of destruction.

Why hasn’t the government been able to control these attacks? Communal violence is not unexpected these days. Since last year, more than 250 people have been killed and about 140,000 people have been displaced by riots in several areas of the country.

The Information Ministry says the latest incident in Htan Gone was triggered by a report that a Muslim man attempted to sexually assault a Buddhist woman on her way home from work. Oddly, most other instances of mass violence in recent months have been sparked by a similar story—a Buddhist woman was reportedly harassed, raped, insulted or attacked by a Muslim man or a group of Muslim men.

It is curious that the government has not taken proper action to prevent tensions from spreading from one town to another. The former military regime—whose leaders continue to run the current nominally civilian government—managed to easily and quickly stop such problems. “Why not now?” is a very relevant question, as Burma’s stability is at high risk in this time of fledgling democratic reform.

An immediate instigator of these attacks has been hate speech.

“Hate speech is the greatest threat to society and its harmony,” Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, an internationally known scholar and activist for social justice, said at a recent public forum on Muslim-Buddhist relations in Rangoon.

Since last year, hate speech has become too common in local media, particularly online social media. Some Burmese journalists believe communal strife would not have broken out in Arakan State if state-run newspapers Kyemon and Myanmar Ahlin had not used the term kalar to refer to Muslims. The word is a derogatory term for foreigners, especially those of Indian descent.

Those newspapers—which, like all state-run media, are under the Information Ministry—were setting a bad example. Nobody can know for sure whether the derogatory term was mistakenly or purposefully included, although the editors made a correction later.

Myint Kyaw, a journalist based in Rangoon, said the government and authorities were responsible for revealing the identity of those who deliberately spread hate speech on any platform of media, including social media. He pointed to the example of Myanmar Express (, which in the past has attacked opposition groups like the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. More recently, the website has published hate speech against Muslims.

Myint Kyaw called on the government to disclose the identity of those who are behind the website, which critics have long believed is associated with the government’s high-ranking authorities, perhaps since the era of the former regime. There has been some speculation that it is a proxy website for these officials.

“Politicians invariably try to exploit the people’s sentiments for political purposes so they can enhance their power and perhaps expand their constituencies. This has happened over and over again in history,” Dr. Chandra wrote in a series of his papers known as “Religions Values in Plural Society.”

In Burma’s case, it is difficult to say whether the government has been behind the ongoing unrest. But because the government is responsible for stopping the unrest, many critics believe that hardliners in the current administration or the ex-junta might have supported it.

Ashin Dhama Sara, who was also a panelist with Dr. Chandra during the interfaith forum, said, “No one should be above the law. Likewise, no religion should be above the law.”

The Buddhist monk added that misunderstanding between Buddhist and Muslim communities could lead to unrest. That’s true: Misunderstanding, misconception, misinterpretation and misinformation have repeatedly been key triggers for rioting in the country.

Dr. Chandra urged Burmese citizens to work toward a harmonious society by applying three R’s: rights, responsibility and respect. The scholar, who is president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), added that rights always come with responsibility.

“You don’t want to be like Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka in Asia,” the scholar warned the crowd of several hundred people, including Buddhists and Muslims.

He offered a reminder that all religions are committed to justice, loving kindness and the dignity of human beings. Both Buddhists and Muslims cherish family values, he said.

Of course, Burma’s society has not yet reached a stage of harmony. Ko Tar, another panelist and a well-known writer, raised a question for the audience: “Are we Burmese racist?”

“What happened in the past year has damaged the integrity of our country,” he said. “We should ask ourselves whether our goal is to become a country filled with happiness or a country filled with sadness and misery.”