Hate speech intensity and trajectory could shift in Myanmar 2020 elections

30 November 2019
Hate speech intensity and trajectory could shift in Myanmar 2020 elections
Hate speech and social media posts led to conflict - Riot police block a road in Mandalay, Myanmar, 04 July 2014. One Buddhist and one Muslim were killed and 14 people injured in two nights of clashes. The violence followed allegations that two Muslim brothers who own a teashop raped a Buddhist female member of staff. Photo: EPA

Increasing hate speech and diminishing freedoms are of serious concerns as Myanmar gets ready to hold national elections in November 2020. 

Given the dangers, Mizzima Weekly sought the knowledge of a regional expert to attempt to alert the public to the potential pitfalls that lie ahead in an environment where hate speech has become all too serious and damaging to society.

Dr. James Gomez, a Singapore National, is Regional Director of Asia Centre (Malaysia and Thailand) a not-for-profit organization that seeks to create human rights impact in the region. Dr. Gomez has over 25 years of international experience at universities, think-tanks, inter-governmental agencies and non-governmental organisations. He holds a PhD. (Monash University, Australia), MA (University of Essex, United Kingdom), and B. Soc. Sci. (Hons.) from the National University of Singapore. He is the convener of Asia Centre’s Freedom of Expression Project on Disinformation Operations, Fake News and Hate Speech in Asia. He has received several awards to undertake research on issues related to disinformation operations, fake news and hate speech by the Korean Democracy Foundation (2018), Sumitomo Foundation (2019) and mostly recently has been awarded the Taiwan Fellowship (2020).

How do you view the overall problem of hate speech in Myanmar?

Contemporary hate speech issues in Myanmar are best understood in the context of fake news trends in Southeast Asia where false or misleading information is intentionally designed and widely circulated online to affect political and other outcomes. In Southeast Asia, hate speech is oftentimes a by-product of fake news intentionally circulated via social media during periods of political mobilisation or during election campaigns. Hate speech has emerged as an important concern in the region and elsewhere because of the rise in consumption of unverified user-generated content over social media using mobile devices as fact-based traditional media consumption drops drastically. In 2019, in Southeast Asia, of its population of 662 million with 843 million (129%) mobile subscriptions, internet penetration stood at 63% (416 million), and the number of active social media users at 375 million (57%). While hate speech has always existed within societies disseminated via rumours, dogmatic teachings and state-controlled traditional media, social media has intensified and viralised hate speech online leading to violent outcomes. In countries where the internet penetration and social media use is not high, hate speech continues to be concurrently circulated via print and broadcast media, public speech and other offline means.

In Southeast Asia, we can discern four types of hate speech. First, there is hate speech related to religious and ethnic issues which are often more pronounced in multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies. Second, there is hate speech against foreign nationals, migrant workers, and refugees. The third type of hate speech is based on political ideology and values and is often directed at regime critics and organisations that promote democracy or regime change. Last but not least, is gendered hate speech aimed at women and the LGBTI community. In the Myanmar case, ethnic and religious based hate speech stands to morph along the lines of political ideology and values, and this requires special attention and remedial action in the run up to the November 2020 elections as hate speech holds the potential to spike during this period. 

Why might hate speech pose a problem in the run up to Myanmar’s 2020 elections? Who are the key players and what are the key issues?

Elections concluded in Southeast Asia such as Cambodia (July 2018), Indonesia (April 2019), Malaysia (May 2018), and Thailand (March 2019) have shown that politicians, political parties, politically aligned faith-based organisations and other interest groups have used hate speech as a tool for political mobilisation during election campaigns. Often politicians and political parties do not expose themselves publicly as directing such campaigns but rather hire PR firms, fund dedicated cyber troops or use proxy organisations to do this work. Nevertheless, politicians and political parties who want to canvass votes from dominant ethnic and religious constituencies often target their hate speech at ethnic and religious minorities in order to garner votes from majority communities. 

Electoral campaigning related hate speech is often directed at minority communities to reduce their political rights especially when it comes to issues of freedom of religion and belief and also other issues related to self-governance and citizenship in order to preserve, bolster and protect the dominance of the majority ethnic or religious group. This sometimes pushes minorities groups, who are in a position of weakness, to also resort to hate rhetoric as a tactic to mobilise their own communities. Unless it's a one-party state or a non-competitive electoral system, such mobilisation presents minorities communities leverage to join competing political coalitions or alliances of political parties led by majority groups that seek additional support from minority communities to widen their support among voters. On a positive note, the electoral landscape can also present opportunities for minority groups to join with progressive members of the majority group to form an alternative political alliance. 

I see hate speech in Myanmar as poised to being deployed for this purpose in the upcoming electoral cycle. This marks a shift in direction from the earlier deployment of manipulated online and offline hate speech directed at the Rohingyas in Rakhine state, Muslims and ethnic minorities in other parts of the country. Even though hate speech against minorities communities such as Rohingya is still expressed in everyday discourse in Myanmar, its intensity has dipped and has been redirected against Buddhist Rakhine and also towards other Christian ethnic minorities like the Karen or Kachin.

However, the upcoming electoral cycle will expose new trajectories and spikes of hate speech along political ideology and values in Myanmar which require urgent attention and resolution. Depending on the electoral outcome, we can possibly see hate speech and associated violence to continue in the post-election dynamics. So, it's best to be aware of the shifts early and stem it before the elections.

The growth in internet and mobile phone coverage has improved communications over the last decade and a lot of it is taking place over social media such as Facebook and Viber. How is this proving a platform for hate speech?

Presently compared to all the Southeast Asian countries Myanmar's internet penetration is still one of the lowest at 39% for a population of 55 million. However, given that we have nearly one year before the November 2020 elections and based on current internet and social media growth rates, we can safely predict that the internet penetration and usage of social media over mobile devices may approximately reach up to 45% for a population of 55 million in the run up to Myanmar's November 2020 election. During this period, 81% of all social media users consuming information would be 18-34 years old making this group a target of hate speech content.

The main social media apps used to disseminate hate speech will be Facebook and Facebook Messenger and to a lesser extent Viber and WhatsApp. Given the lack of effective legal and non-legal measures taken to date to curb hate speech, political contestants would be free to use hate speech as a campaign tool to canvass for support. Thus, the communication improvements in Myanmar can also unfortunately fuel hate speech and by extension hate crimes. That's why hate speech should be of special concern for Myanmar in the run up to its November 2020 elections and that’s why policy makers, technology companies and other stakeholders need to consider how to deal with it.

What can the Myanmar authorities do to curb hate speech?

Over the last few years, countries in Southeast Asia such as Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand have passed, amended or announced their intention to introduce bills aimed at securing social, racial or religious harmony. In October 2019, Singapore updated its Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill passed in 1990, to address to derogatory remarks about religions and prevent religion from being exploited for political or subversive purposes. In July 2018, Malaysia announced three new laws - the Anti-Discrimination Act, National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission Act and the Religious and Racial Hatred Act - were proposed to combat hate speech. In 2016, Myanmar started drafting the Protection Against Hate Speech Bill in order to manage religious hate speech. Myanmar civil society also responded with their version of an interfaith harmony bill. However, there is still no public clarity on the status of any legal measures.

When drafting and implementing such laws, signatories to international human rights instruments, including among others the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), will need to ensure that national legislation is aligned with international conventions and complies with international treaty obligations. In this regard, Myanmar remains one of the three ASEAN member countries that has yet to sign the ICERD (Malaysia’s efforts this year suffered a domestic setback). Myanmar should consider signing up to and ratifying the ICERD.

Authorities could also adopt various non-legal measures that could be used to promote 'social harmony' as a positive approach to combating hate speech as opposed to using the law to criminalise such acts. Some of these measures include promoting education and literacy and developing inclusive programmes. Often these measures involve setting up governmental mechanisms to monitor social tensions, marshalling civil servants and religious leaders into public education efforts and sponsoring interfaith dialogues. Additionally, by supporting journalists and media organisations to combat hate speech through the promotion of high-quality journalism, and media and information literacy workshops.

In deploying legal or non-legal measures, these efforts should ensure that they do not indirectly lead to discrimination or segregation of minority communities within the larger society. Myanmar should also review any existing measures that are discriminatory and dismantle them and instead focus on sustainable solutions that are inclusive of all communities to combat hate speech. But what is ultimately most important is for Myanmar to thoughtfully review its framework of ethnic relations. Presently what is discriminatory is not plainly obvious to many in Myanmar due to its nationalistic culture and long isolation. Hence any revised framework of ethnic relations should make obvious to policy makers and the general public alike what it means to be discriminatory. 

Facebook has received calls to halt the “misuse” of their platform by users. Has this helped?

Facebook has made public its efforts to tackle misuse of its platform. It is done so by removing some users account as well as introducing Myanmar language evaluators. Some of the changes announced were limiting forwarding of malicious content, removing the bad actors under the Facebook's community guidelines and streamlining the reporting process with focus on media literacy programmes. Yet hate speech continues to be circulated which suggests that the efforts taken by Facebook are not effective enough. For instance, it is unclear if these Myanmar language evaluators hired by Facebook understand free speech and discrimination. Presently it appears that ethnic minority and anti-regime activists are being targeted by trolls whose calls for takedown are being upheld by Facebook evaluators, while those actually proliferating hate speech seem less affected.

We also need to note the use of other social media platforms such as WhatsApp or Viber which are closed platforms. In the run up to the next elections one needs to be aware that hate speech circulates in a closed environment in such Apps for some time before it rises to a frenzy and spills out open into the public domain and gets further circulated and viralised through open apps such as Facebook.

It is worth noting technology companies, their social media platforms and associated policies of usage can foster hate speech or help curb it. Hence, technology companies have a prime role to play in tackling hate speech.

What would you say are the core areas of concern with hate speech?

There is no international legal definition of what constitutes hate speech. As a result of this lack of definition, international law instead tries to focus on prohibiting the incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence. Incitement in this sense can easily lead to further escalation from hate speech to hate crime. Threshold for states to take action on hate speech is the incitement. However, even though it might not be prohibited, hate speech can still cause serious harm. Additionally, states are often left to define and legislate based on what they perceive as "hate speech". Such laws then can be used to stifle dissenting opinions and further oppress minority and marginalized groups which are often victims of the most violent forms of hate speech. For instance in Myanmar, the law can be turned around to target minorities who speak up on the discriminations they face by arguing that these minority communities’ exercise of their civil and human rights is itself “hate speech” against the majority group.

Can you tell us more about Asia Centre’s Freedom of Expression project for Southeast Asia and the wider region?

The Asia Centre project assesses the impact of legal restrictions on human rights in Southeast Asia and the wider region. From 2019-2022 the project on Freedom of Expression examines developments related to disinformation operations, fake news, hate speech and propaganda, and the challenges these phenomena pose to academia, civil society, government agencies, independent media, INGOs and the UN in the region and beyond. The project components include baseline studies, reports and books; national seminars; regional roundtables; and international conferences. The highlight each year is Asia Centre’s international conference scheduled in Bangkok, Thailand.

First one in the series was Fake News and Elections in Asia, 10-12 July 2019; the next is Hate Speech in Asia: Challenges and Solutions, 8-10 July 2020; and thereafter Disinformation Operations and Propaganda in Asia, 14-16 July 2021. The project will culminate with a final conference entitled Freedom of Expression in Asia, 13-15 July 2022.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

While ethnic and religious driven hate speech within the Myanmar continues to exist, it is important to note that its trajectory and intensity is shifting towards other areas as shaped by domestic political developments and in the run up to the November 2020 elections. On the electoral front it is likely to intensify as competing interests try to manipulate hate speech for political gain. Hence, awareness of this shift needs to be made widely known and literacy efforts targeted at the various stakeholders need to be urgently rolled out. Policy makers, technology companies and all other stakeholders have a role to play to find non-discriminatory sustainable solutions. 
Hate speech anchored in ethnic and religious bigotry in Myanmar stands to morph along the lines of political ideology and values during the electoral and post-electoral fray if remedial action is not taken beforehand.

Asia Centre’s welcomes expressions of interest for partnerships and is available to provide expert policy advice in this area. Their work can be accessed at www.asiacentre.org and we can be reached at [email protected]