“It was the perfect storm”

Before 700,000 Rohingya fled genocide in Myanmar in 2017, the military had incited millions of users against the group in a hate speech campaign on Facebook. Why did the company not intervene? And could it happen again? Human rights experts Matthew Smith (Fortify Rights) and Alan Davis (Institute for War and Peace Reporting), who both witnessed the events leading up to the genocide, shared their insights with me over the phone.

Published on the NUDGED blog, March 18, 2020 >>

The interviews were edited for length and clarity.

Alan, you led a study on hate speech in Myanmar prior to the genocide, from 2015-2017, for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. What kind of rhetoric did you observe?

Rohingya at the refugee camp Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, photo: (cc) Mahajabin Khan/Wikimedia.org

When we started our observation, four years after the end of the civil war, everybody seemed to attack everybody else based on their ethnicity. But the Bamar, who are by far the largest majority [68% of the population], had the loudest voice – and together with the military, the Tatmadaw, and some widely respected Buddhist monks they started targeting Muslims, especially the Rohingya in Rakhine State.

On Facebook, they were presented as the “other: They were labeled as “dark-skinned” (“kalar”), dirty and compared to dogs, crows and insects. They were never referred to as Rohingya but as “Bengali”, thus reaffirming the false narrative that they are “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. Hatred against Burmese Muslims had culminated in racialized attacks several times during the 20th century, but this time it was amplified by Social Media.

Why were Myanmar citizens so susceptible to falling for this rhetoric?

After half a century of dictatorships, the country had officially transitioned to democracy in 2011 but the military still held power. Whenever a society transitions from closed to open, there is potential for hate speech – I have seen that during my time as a journalist in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In Myanmar, people with no media literacy, little education and little contact with the “other” suddenly gained access to mobile phones and Social Media – it was the perfect storm.

If this was so obvious for me, a silly ex-journalist and non-expert, it should have been easy to see for the development community and the diplomatic community. But they did not react until it was too late.

Header photo: A Rohingya woman in the Balukhali refugee camp in March 2018, half a year after the violence erupted in Myanmar, (cc) UN Women/Allison Joyce

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