Guest Column

The Internet is Bringing out the Worst in Burmese

By Sai Latt 6 November 2012

In June, soon after the initial outbreak of violence in Arakan State, I wrote an analysis of events leading to the conflict there for New Mandala, an online academic forum hosted by the Australian National University.

In my analysis, I highlighted aggressive anti-Rohingya campaigns on Facebook—something that some commentators responded to by noting that Burma has very few Internet users. This, they argued, meant that the online activities of Burmese were insignificant.

More recently, however, evidence has shown that such assumptions are wrong. This year’s Miss International competition, held in Japan in October, demonstrated just how zealous Burmese can be about using the Internet as a tool to advance their opinions—often at the expense of those of others.

Burmese netizens went to great pains to ensure that Nang Khin Zay Yar, the Burmese contestant, won both the Miss Internet award, based on clicks on the photo-hosting website Flickr, and the People’s Choice award, based on a poll on the website

The question is, how could Burmese Internet users lift their favorite to the top of both contests if their country is known to be one of the worst in the world in terms of Internet access?

While there’s no reason to dispute that the charming 24-year-old ethnic Pa-O woman fully deserved both awards, it is unfortunate that her fans appeared to feel a need to cheat on her behalf. On Facebook, Burmese urged each other to vote for her repeatedly, casting doubt on the validity of the final outcome.

The voting results were intriguing. For the People’s Choice award, Nang Khin Zay Yar received 39,160 out of a total 41,519 votes in her cohort, or 94.3 percent of the total. The second-place contestant from Guatemala received fewer than 1,500 votes. India, with more than a billion people and a reputation as an emerging global center of the IT industry, cast only 135 votes for its representative.

For the Miss Internet award, Nang Khin Zay Yar received 21.5 million votes, while the contestant from Macao came in second with 16.7 million votes. The extremely high vote counts suggest that multiple voting was allowed and that campaigning was common. But the Burmese voters clearly outdid their rivals in their sheer determination to win.

Indeed, I can easily attest to this: a childhood friend of mine spent hours in front of his computer clicking on Nang Khin Zay Yar’s photo. Why? Because she’s from our home town of Taunggyi in Shan State. So she just had to win.

For many other Burmese, supporting Miss Myanmar became a “national cause,” to use a favorite phrase of the former military junta, which was fond of deciding what Burmese should all be striving for. After all, she represented Burmese pride, so every vote they cast for her was a vote for their beloved nation.

It may seem a stretch to link this sort of behavior to the outpouring of anti-Rohingya sentiment on Facebook and other social networking sites, but it’s really not so far-fetched. If nationalistic sentiment could so strongly motivate some Burmese Internet users to cheat in a beauty contest, imagine the distortions they might be capable of if they believed that Muslim invaders were coming to steal their land, their women and the very soul of their Buddhist nation.

But those who spew hatred against the Rohingyas are not the only ones using the Internet to twist this issue to their own liking. While there’s is plenty of anti-Rohingya and anti-Islam bile to be found online, some on the other side are also going to extremes to highlight Rohingya and Muslim victimhood, sometimes by resorting to blatant misinformation.

There are, however, also a few voices of peace and calm out there: progressive activists, ordinary Buddhist and Muslim Internet users, certain Buddhist monks, and emerging inter-faith groups. But these voices are being drowned out by a steady stream of hate speech that is already making it nearly impossible to address this issue in a clear-sighted, practical manner.

The media isn’t helping much, either. Too often, its focus has been on devastating clashes and on views that detract from the message of peace that is central to both Buddhism and Islam.

To counter the deluge of distortions, we must start paying serious attention to moderate voices and publicize them as widely as possible, so that the public knows that civilized discourse is possible, even on the Internet. If not, the cycle of violence will only widen, destroying not only people’s lives and homes, but also all prospect of peace in the future.

Sai Latt is a Burmese and a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University in Canada. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policies of The Irrawaddy.