burma
Social Networks

Flower Speech in Myanmar

Panzagar operates from a small downtown apartment in Yangon and is the new and fastest growing movement on the internet to battle hate speech. It was about time, because Myanmar has been wracked with communal and online violence and needed a voice of reason. Panzagar is a civil society organisation dedicated to countering the tide of online venom with flower power or, more accurately, flower speech.

In 2013, Nay Phone Latt founded Panzagar, which means "flower speech", in response to the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment that has spread across the nation in the past two years. Aljazeera reports 250 people killed in the ensuing violence and more than 140,000 are displaced and living in camps. The victims hail from the minority Muslim Rohingya population, although some Buddhist monasteries, homes and businesses have also been burned down in revenge attacks.

The Political Hate

Since the violence began, hate speech targeting various groups has been growing. Facebook has been one of the most effective ways of spreading hate with a large number of xenophobic Buddhist Facebook accounts created under pseudonyms. The comments that have been directed against the Burmese Muslim community show an extreme level of disregard for human dignity. One comment on Facebook reads, "We should kill every Muslim. No Muslims should be in Myanmar." 

The situation is such that 90% of Myanmar's population follows Theravada Buddhism. The monkhood is deeply revered here, and beyond reproach. After 2011, many monks started to believe Myanmar's Buddhist identity was under threat. These views are widely accepted, creating a mentality of victimhood and besiegement in the Buddhist community.

Ashin Kumara, a senior monk, claims his country is at risk from “Islamisation”, echoing the attitudes of many other Buddhist nationalist leaders. Despite the absence of evidence there was a wider spread paranoia that the minority Muslim Rohingya population in the west of the country was and is attempting to carve out a separate state for themselves, and that Muslim population growth is outstripping that of Buddhists. This type of nationalism has not just devastated the Muslim community but put a dent in the reverence and respect that was reserved for the monks of Burma nationally and internationally.

Growing Online Hate Speech

There are social and technical reasons why Facebook has gained such popularity in Myanmar. Firstly the website requires low bandwidth to load and secondly, it is easy to use for non-English speakers and handles Myanmar fonts well compared to other social media like Twitter. But there seems to be no ethics to conversation on Facebook.

There is a debate going on that can explain why this is so. At the recent Technology Salon talk in Washington on “What Happens When 60 Million Burmese Go Online Overnight?” leading voices from the fields of technology and development debated just what this sudden opening up of the internet would mean for Burmese culture and society. One major question was the ability of the people to switch from the environment of oppression they experienced under previous governments to the open and chaotic online experience.

The general context of Myanmar is that people do not have digital or online information literacy and these are skills that take years to develop. This availability of absolutely free speech and the option of anonymity have caused the dramatic rise in hate speech on Facebook, where old ethnic and religious tensions are pouring forth. Because there was no political space to sort out these issues before the end of the rule of the military junta in 2011, these problems have suddenly erupted in physical and online violence.

Internet hate speech has a limited reach in rural areas where most of the violence has already erupted, but that is expected to change dramatically as access to the internet is growing by leaps and bounds. An example of how the country is on the edge of this change is that the government has announced multi-billion-dollar telecommunications and oil block licenses via Facebook but asked for responses to a draft bill on religious conversion by fax. Additionally the Myanmar government's spokesperson, Ye Htut, is called the "Facebook Minister" for his frequent use of the social media site.

Panzagar and Social Responsibility

There are avenues that the government and online community can explore to counter the problem of hate speech. One of them is to increase social responsibility on Facebook as well as reach out to Facebook itself to crack down on abusive behaviour. Facebook has a policy against hate speech and it should enforce that policy in Myanmar, including closing accounts that break its Community Standards. Facebook allows people to reach out to the person who posted the content and also report abuse. Facebook spokesman Matt Steinfeld spoke to Al Jazeera and said that, "We're always looking for ways to help people address content on Facebook that concerns them.”

The Panzagar Flower Speech campaign is a great example of Burmese reacting against hate speech and everything must be done to support such movements on social media. Panzagar, in response to hate speech, organises itself online and distributes posters, pamphlets and stickers in the street, discouraging people from spreading hatred in society by literally putting flowers in their mouths.

 "Freedom should have limitations if your freedom harms others," says Latt. And a majority of people would agree that what should not be said in public to a person, should not be allowed on the internet either. As activist Aung Myo Min, director of Equality Myanmar and co-founder of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, points out, “Chapter eight of our Constitution grants freedom of speech. But it also prohibits this freedom if what we say is prejudicial towards other races or faiths.” 

Internet and the Future

The founder of Panzagar, Nay Phone Latt, spent four years in jail for his online activism under the rule of the military. He knows that regulation of speech needs to come from the people and not from the government. Laws that put him behind bars still exist, so the power of free speech that has been given to the people can be taken back.

It will be interesting to see how the mainly verbal culture of Myanmar will be changed in the digital public sphere. With the country stepping into a new digital age, it would not be wise for the government to regulate social media. The citizenry should be allowed to tackle and deal with its issues, and with counter movements like Panzagar becoming nationally popular, it seems that it is.

Government censorship would be a step backwards for the brave people of Myanmar. They should be allowed to embrace the freedom and responsibility of democracy, even if it comes with the problems of ethnic violence and hate speech in the short run.

 

Saadia Gardezi is a Political Scientist from Pakistan

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Saadia Gardezi

Saadia Gardezi is a political scientist from Pakistan

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