Guest Column

Hate Speech Threats Proliferate in Myanmar, Southeast Asia

By James Gomez & Khin Mai Aung 27 July 2020

Southeast Asia and Myanmar are experiencing new forms of hate speech that are increasingly being played out over social media. But updated measures to tackle new forms of hate must move away from outdated policies focused on narrow definitions of hate speech. Instead, such measures must be expanded and evenly applied for the protection of all.

Although regulation of hate speech is intended to protect the victim, when narrowly framed and selectively deployed such regulations can be weaponized against vulnerable populations and threaten democracy itself. Furthermore, governments themselves have instigated hate speech that has led to genocide and crimes against humanity in the region.

Bangkok-based think tank Asia Centre’s 40-page report released on July 22, 2020, “Hate Speech in Southeast Asia: New Form, Old Rules”, discusses these matters.

Hate speech has no universally accepted definition.

The UN has noted that in all its forms, hate speech essentially comprises of any kind of communication in speech, writing or behavior, “that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender or other identity factor.”

Governments in the region have traditionally sought to regulate hate speech along ethnic, racial and religious lines. In Myanmar, hate speech relating to religion remains a particular concern. Article 295(a) of the Penal Code criminalizes speech “with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings”—in essence, insulting religion. While Article 295(a)’s text does not favor one religion over another, it has been exclusively deployed to target alleged insults against Buddhism, rather than to protect religious minorities from harassment.

This spring, three artists in Kachin State who painted a mural to raise COVID-19 public health awareness were charged under Article 295(a), because its depiction of death allegedly resembled a Buddhist monk. After more than 12 court hearings over three months, the artists were eventually freed by a court in the Kachin State capital, Myitkyina, on July 17, having managed to persuade the court that the image in the mural of the Grim Reaper carrying a pot was not supposed to be a monk.

The law has also repeatedly been used to target and imprison critics of Buddhist nationalism and religious extremism. On the flip side, even clear hate crimes against religious minorities aren’t always prosecuted. In the recent murder of 17-year-old Muslim Ko Ko Zaw, the perpetrator—a monk—wasn’t charged with a hate crime, although he made statements about the victim’s ethnicity and religion before the murder.

It has also been well documented that the Myanmar military and its agents actively utilize social media to express and stir up hate speech against the Rohingya—and to some extent against Muslims in general. In 2018, military personnel caused a surge of online hatred by posting incendiary comments about the Rohingya and Muslims on Facebook posing as celebrities and influencers.

Additionally, newer forms of hate speech have emerged in Southeast Asia directed at foreign nationals such as refugees and migrant workers, the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Intersex (LGBTI) community and those holding differing political values.

Hate speech against foreign nationals, including refugees and migrant workers, recently spiked amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Migrant workers in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have been stigmatized for posing “threats” to health and even national security. In Malaysia, negative perceptions of Rohingya refugees have emerged in response to news of their rising numbers, undocumented entry into the country, and alleged community health risks. And here in Myanmar, Rohingya are vilified as “Bengali” foreigners and Muslims generally are sometimes perceived as not native. Recently, advocates have asserted that use of the term “Bengali” constitutes hate speech against the Rohingya.

Incidents of hate speech aimed at the LGBTI community are also growing. In Myanmar, LGBTI community members and women have been targets of hate speech, and have inadequate access to protections from it.  Myanmar law expressly discriminates against LGBTI persons. Consensual sexual contact between same-sex individuals is a crime. Myanmar has no laws prohibiting discrimination against a person based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In May 2011, a Myanmar transgender woman was sentenced to five years in prison. Even though anti-LGBTI laws are rarely enforced as it was in this instance, their continued presence legitimizes ongoing hate speech toward sexual minorities.

Finally, serious societal divisions over ideology and political values are exacerbated by the weaponization of hate speech. Myanmar has seen its fair share of hate speech in this area. For example, UN personnel in Myanmar have faced hate speech aimed at suppressing their work. UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee has been personally insulted and repeatedly threatened publicly for speaking out against discrimination targeting the Rohingya minority.

In order to address hate speech, a mixture of legal measures have been adopted.

Myanmar, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore have either revised or drafted dedicated “harmony” bills aimed at securing social, racial or religious harmony. Since 2016, Myanmar has been drafting a harmony bill, the Protection Against Hate Speech Bill, in order to manage religious hate speech. The current draft is with the Ministry of Home Affairs. However, in late April, following hate speech targeting and stigmatizing religious minorities for allegedly spreading COVID-19, Myanmar’s President signed Anti-Hate Speech Orders requiring state officials to monitor and report online hate speech to the central government and to denounce and prevent all forms of hate speech.

To date, most hate speech laws in Myanmar and throughout the region disproportionately focus on race and religion. They do not adequately recognize the new forms of hate speech described above, which are targeted at an expanded range of identity groups. Further, Southeast Asian domestic legal frameworks concerning incitement to hatred do not provide the underlying civil and human rights required or encouraged under international law.

Additionally, the broad and vague wording of some hate speech regulations allow them to be used to selectively oppress vulnerable communities and political opponents. In addition to Article 295(a) of the Myanmar Penal Code, which targets religious blasphemy and incitement, Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law penalizes actions “causing undue influence or threatening any person using a telecommunications network.” It has mostly been used to prosecute social media posts deemed offensive.

Also, Section 505 of the Penal Code bans statements that “cause fear or alarm,” disturb “public tranquility”, or cause someone to commit an “offense against the State.” Section 505 has been used to punish a wide range of political speech, including peaceful assembly and protest, and the distribution of political writings and media.

Hate speech regulations—especially those imposing criminal consequences—must be clear, precise and targeted at specific behavior. Otherwise, like these Myanmar legal provisions, they can be manipulated to selectively oppress dissent and target the disenfranchised. The net result is to hamper freedom of expression and consequently threaten democracy.

Dr. James Gomez is the regional director of Asia Centre, a not-for-profit organization working to create human rights impact in the region. “Hate Speech in Southeast Asia: New Form, Old Rules” is Asia Centre’s latest report. Khin Mai Aung is an Asia Centre associate and has practiced American civil rights, immigrant rights, and education law for over 15 years. She was born in Yangon, and immigrated to the United States as a child.

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