A new study on the ongoing general election season in Myanmar documented cases of social media hate speech and disinformation by authorities against the country’s minority communities.
The study, released on Wednesday by the UK-based Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN), reported 39 cases of hate speech and disinformation, of which some were shared over online platforms more then 2,000 times.
“Burma [Myanmar] has failed to use its own laws related to incitement to protect minorities but has frequently used them to protect the military and those in power to suppress the freedom of expression,” the study report read.
Citing what its said was the decades-long discrimination of Myanmar’s Muslim minority, the 34-page report added that authorities had “unjustly disqualified” Muslim candidates from running for office “after falsely claiming they could not prove their ancestry’s citizenship.”
The report said the right group’s hate speech monitoring team had gathered information on “anti-Muslim hate speech” on social media, as well as “spreading fake news, vicious attacks, and incitement of violence against Burmese Muslims.”
Amid a growing novel coronavirus caseload and ongoing unrest in some areas, general elections are slated for Nov. 8, 2020.
A total of 92 parties are competing in the vote, though the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party and the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) are the two main contesters in the Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian country of nearly 55 million people.
The credibility of the polls — the first since the landslide victory in 2015 of Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD — however, has been questioned as more than 1.5 million people including Rohingya Muslims in the conflict-ridden western Rakhine State have been politically disenfranchised after the country’s election commission scrapped voting in several areas.
“The decision-making process of the commission, which canceled voting in 15 townships and parts of 42 others, was not public and did not involve meaningful consultation with political parties, candidates, or local organizations,” said a statement by the Human Rights Watch last month.
It said the decisions had been taken without any “meaningful transparency,” adding that people’s right to choose their representatives had been affected as a result.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, BHRN’s Executive Director Kyaw Win criticized the alleged hate speech and discrimination in Myanmar during the election.
Accusing the authorities of muzzling free speech while turning a blind eye to hate speech against Muslims, he urged the Union Election Commission (UEC) to “enforce its policies fairly for all candidates and parties without prejudice and discrimination.”
“The UEC must cease any efforts to disenfranchise minorities by preventing them from running for office,” he said.
Violating domestic, international laws
The study argued that the government’s “discriminatory rhetoric” against Muslims and other minorities as contradictory to both Burmese and International laws, the study recommended: “No one should be excluded from candidacy or voting rights due to their religion or ethnicity.”
“Burma acknowledges the dangers of incitement in their own laws, but they fail to enforce them when minorities are targeted,” it said.
The report also accused the USDP and other pro-military and pro-nationalist parties of using Muslims as a “scapegoat” in the election campaign, adding that the NLD had responded with its own “exclusionary” and “divisive rhetoric” against Muslims.
“The Union Election Commission [of Myanmar] must enforce its policies fairly for all candidates and parties.”
Emphasizing the role of international community, it urged the US, EU, UK and UN to hold Myanmar accountable for its “discriminatory policies in the election, the proliferation of hate speech and misinformation, and violence in the campaigns.”
Hate speech as a weapon
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, the founder of a Rohingya refugee group in Bangladesh, Khin Maung, underlined that hate speech was a weapon used to spread discrimination against ethnic minorities in Myanmar, including Rohingya Muslims.
“Hate speech is part of racism and discrimination but in Myanmar, these are available on social media — even [on] state sponsored media,” added Maung, who heads the Rohingya Youth Association.
Citing recent “fake news” against UK-based Rohingya rights activist Ko Tun Khin, he said: “Even Burmese [Myanmar] military-led video channels spread fake news against Tun Khin.”
Maung also accused the Suu Kyi administration of spreading hate speech against Rohingya Muslims. “Calling Rohingya Bangalis [Bengali] is hate speech. We totally dislike this term. But the Burmese government’s officers use the term against us continuously.”
Meanwhile, the president of the Burmese Rohingya Association in Japan, Zaw Mint Htut, warned that the environment in Myanmar was “not conducive to holding fair elections.”
“The election would not be held in most cities in Arakan [Rakhine state] and other areas, citing security concerns. Just a few Muslims have been allowed to run for the election in Yangon but most of the Muslim community even in Yangon and other cities are delisted from the voters list. At the same time, hate speech against the Muslims and Islam became the main slogan for election campaigns by both ruling and opposition parties,” he told Anadolu Agency.
The Rohingya, described by the UN as the world’s most persecuted people, have faced heightened fears of attack since dozens were killed in communal violence in 2012.
According to Amnesty International, more than 750,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, fled Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh after Myanmar forces launched a crackdown on the minority Muslim community in August 2017, pushing the number of persecuted people in Bangladesh above 1.2 million.