Myanmar & COVID-19

Myanmar President Orders State, Regional Govts to Battle Hate Speech Amid COVID-19 Fight

By Zarni Mann 21 April 2020

MANDALAY—Myanmar’s President has ordered state and regional governments to encourage government employees to participate in anti-hate speech activities amid a rise in social media comments accusing certain groups of spreading COVID-19.

The order, signed by the permanent secretary of the President’s Office, states that everyone has the right to be treated with respect and to live without fear of violence, intimidation or discrimination based on group identity or personal characteristics.

Warning that the spread of hate speech could lead to discrimination and violence within communities and affect social harmony, the President’s Office ordered all ministries and their agencies, departments and offices to encourage all of their personnel to participate in and support anti-hate speech activities.

“All ministries and all regional and state governments are to ensure that their personnel, officers, staff—whether from the military or other security forces, or civil servants—and local people under their control or direction shall take all possible measure to denounce and prevent all forms of hate speech. All ministries, their agencies, departments and offices shall further encourage all personnel to participate in and support anti-hate speech activities,” the order reads.

Human rights activists and others engaged in anti-hate speech campaigns welcomed the order from the President’s Office, which follows a rise in hate speech online in relation to the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

“I think the President’s Office wants to control the haters and hate speech, which have spread over social media in relation to COVID-19 cases in recent days, and which could lead to communal unrest and threaten the peace and harmony of society,” said writer Ma Thida (Sanchaung), who is on the board of directors of PEN International, a global association of writers.

In recent days, Myanmar has seen an increase in hate speech on social media over the spread of COVID-19, especially regarding cases traced to a religious gathering hosted by two Christian pastors.

The two pastors and two of their followers are facing lawsuits for breaching the government’s COVID-19 control directives. However, some people have attacked the pastors and their followers through social networks as coronavirus spreaders. Half of the coronavirus infections in Yangon have been traced to a religious gathering organized by the pastors.

Video clips of a sermon in which Pastor Saw David Lah criticizes Islam and Buddhism have been widely circulated, accompanied by comments expressing hatred of Christianity by some nationalists and religious extremists.

Ma Thida (Sanchaung) welcomed the government’s action to maintain social harmony, saying activists across the country had been struggling against hate speech for a long time.

However, other activists who have worked to eliminate hate speech, discrimination, communal conflict and violence said the government’s order was too vague to prevent incitement of violence while also preserving freedom of expression.

“Issuing an order like this alone will not be effective in eliminating hate speech. The government needs to more precisely define hate speech. Otherwise [legitimate] comments, opinions and criticism will be mistaken for hate speech, creating a threat to freedom of expression,” said Yangon regional parliament lawmaker Ko Nay Phone Latt, a leader of the Panzagar (“Flower Speech”) campaign against hate speech.