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Inciting Rohingya hatred on social media

Rodion Ebbighausen
August 25, 2018

The violent escalation of the Rohingya conflict in Myanmar last year resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees. An inflammatory discourse, mainly on social media, was partly to blame for the crisis.

Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar
Image: Reuters/A. Abidi

Almost 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar since last summer. The exodus began after Myanmar's military responded to an attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on August 25, 2017, with large-scale military operations. According to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the violence. The United Nations described the army's operations as "ethnic cleansing."

As a result, Bangladesh is currently home to the world's largest refugee camp. A repatriation agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar has been signed, but when and how a return could begin remains open.

From the outset, the crisis was covered in international media and accompanied by much discussion on social media. Facebook is so dominant in Myanmar that some say that for many in the country, Facebook is the internet. Even the government publishes important decisions, such as the president's resignation in March 2018, on Facebook first of all.

Read more: Rohingya protest on first anniversary of Myanmar’s deadly purge

Hate messages and conspiracy theories

Smear campaigns and conspiracy theories targeting Rohingya and Muslims in the country are widespread on Facebook, as has been shown by Steve Stecklow in a detailed report for Reuters. Rohingyas are defamed as dogs, maggots and rapists who should be shot and whose remains should be fed to pigs. There are claims that Muslims have 10 times more children than Buddhists and that there are secret plans to turn Myanmar, almost 90 percent of which is populated by Buddhists, into an Islamic nation.

When the ongoing conflict in Rakhine State violently erupted again in August 2017 (there had already been mass exoduses in 1978 and 1991-92), United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Yanghee Lee warned that the agitation against Rohingya on social media had increased massively and was inflaming the conflict.

"Facebook has now turned into a beast, and not what it originally intended," Lee said. Data analyst Raymond Serrato from the Berlin-based NGO Democracy Reporting International investigated Facebook postings in the context of the crisis. He is convinced that Facebook stoked the already heated mood in the country. And historian Jacques Leider from the French Institute for Asian Studies in Bangkok told DW, "The government should have taken action regarding the hate comments on Facebook. But it wouldn't."

Read more: Rohingya in Bangladesh: How young citizen reporters experienced the mass exodus

Facebook does too little

According to Stecklow, Facebook itself took little action against hateful comments last year. There are still hundreds of posts on Facebook that incite hatred and call for the murder of Rohingya. The company has admitted to Reuters that it has had technical difficulties blocking hate speech in the Burmese language. David Madden, a tech entrepreneur who worked in Myanmar, told Reuters: "The central problem is that the mechanisms that they have to pull down hate speech in a timely way, before it does real world harm, they don't work."

At the same time, the military is insisting that it is protecting the country from terrorists and that reports of excessive violence and mass rape are "fake news." Government spokesperson U Zaw Htay said in October 2017 that the mass exodus of Rohingya was staged in order to mislead the international community. This message was widely disseminated on social media within Myanmar.

Buddhist monks protesting against Rohingya
Buddhist monks have demonstrated against the return of Rohingya MuslimsImage: Getty Images/J. Gratzer

Refugees have limited opportunities to obtain information

On the other hand, Rohingya in refugee camps are also cut off from many sources of information. One reason for this is that about 70 percent of Rohingya are illiterate. But it is also because smartphones are officially banned in refugee camps. Despite this, there are still smartphones, and messages and videos are also shared, for example on WhatsApp. Many Rohingya are interested in news about the region they have had to leave, as well as practical information about camp life. Life in and around the camp is reported on by, among others, community-run Radio Naf, with the support of state broadcaster Bangladesh Betar, the BBC Media Action project and the DW Akademie.

The Rohingya's situation is brought to international attention above all by Rohingya living in exile and activists. "Rohingya Vision," based in Saudi Arabia, reports in four languages (Rohingya, Burmese, English and Arabic). This YouTube channel has 115,000 subscribers. Some videos show minuteslong footage of villages burning, Rohingya fleeing and blood-covered corpses, all accompanied by spiritual song. The boundary between journalism and activism is a blurred one here. According to "Rohingya Vision," it is the first satellite channel to "represent the Rohingya's cause and draw attention to the pain suffered by the most persecuted minority in the world."

Jacques Leider is critical of a television channel taking on the role as the self-proclaimed voice of the Rohingya. "The Rohingya are politically fragmented, even though they may agree on human rights and the fight against persecution. Those who say online that they represent the Rohingya cause have certainly not been democratically elected, nor do they have legitimacy in any other way." The fact that the Rohingya have no institutionalized representatives is another consequence of their statelessness.

Rohingya celebrate Eid in refugee camp

NGOs and UN under pressure

Since the beginning of the mass exodus, and even before, non-governmental organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have been reporting on anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar and discrimination against the Rohingya. In the process, they have come up against obstacles and continue to do so. Myanmar's government refuses journalists and independent organizations entry into the country. This means that reports are based primarily on accounts by refugees in Bangladesh, the analysis of satellite photos showing hundreds of destroyed villages, isolated testimonies by non-Muslim residents of Rakhine State and infrequent anonymous statements by Myanmar's security forces.

In May 2018, Amnesty International went public with claims that there were indications ARSA could have murdered up to 99 Hindus, basing its allegations on interviews and photos it had examined. Some Rohingya activists were outraged, saying the report was illogical and supported Myanmar's military.

It is almost impossible to get an independent picture of the situation. Every effort to report neutrally and objectively is quickly drowned in a storm of indignation.

Jakarta Protest Muslime gegen die Verfolgung von Rohingya
The Rohingya have found support in Muslim-majority IndonesiaImage: Getty Images/G.Chai Hin

New approach needed

Jacques Leider, who has been following media coverage in and about Myanmar for years, believes that restricting the debate to human rights and citizenship, two issues where both sides make drastic demands, is not helpful in the long run.

"Of course, human rights and citizenship are important. But if you want to find a solution, you have to take other approaches into consideration." He believes that in order to solve the conflict, problems should be identified that equally confront both Buddhists and Muslims in the region, such as unemployment. An effort to improve the economic situation of all people in the region could then perhaps be successful, he says. But, he adds, "discussions on the internet are never about economic issues; they're always about politics."

Jacques Leider, however, is not only skeptical: "There's some kind of intellectual fermentation process going on in Myanmar." He says that there are certainly academics and journalists in the younger generation who are critical of the Rohingya's situation in Myanmar. And not only the two Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oe, who researched the murder of 10 Rohingya in 2017.

"Something's changing. It's a slow process, but I am optimistic that something will change in the long term," says Leider. The Reuters journalists' case proves how difficult this is. The government has now confirmed via Facebook the murder of the 10 Rohingya. The perpetrators were punished. On Monday, however, the journalists will also possibly face a conviction for breach of secrecy.

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