The Dark Side of Burma’s Facebook Boom
Shwe Oo leaned in to whisper, disregarding the recorder on the table.
“I won’t vote for the NLD,” she told me, speaking of Aung San Suu Kyi’s secular political party, the National League for Democracy. “The NLD are all Muslims.”
Shwe Oo is Buddhist, like 90% of people in Burma. She lives in Mandalay, like Wirathu, the Buddhist monk inciting fear and hatred with the numbers 969. 969 is often characterised as a Buddhist nationalist movement and explicitly attacks the 4% of the population who are Muslim.
In Mandalay, 969 stickers already abound and are multiplying, decorating shop windows, betel stalls, buses and the handlebars of some people’s scooters.
Like many people I spoke to in Mandalay, Shwe Oo said Muslim as if it were a swear word.
“I saw a video on Facebook,” she explained. “It showed that Muslims live with Aung San Suu Kyi and help her. In 2015, I don’t think Aung San Suu Kyi will win; people won’t vote for her because she would help the Muslims, not the Burmese.”
Recently, racism like this and religious violence have rippled through Burma. At the end of August, an anti-Muslim mob destroyed dozens of houses and shops in Htan Gone village in Sagaing division. Before this, riots devastated Meikhtila— a town near Mandalay— in March, and caused significant damage in Lashio, in May. A crisis persists in Rakhine state, most recently spreading to Thandwe, in the south of the state, in October.
As Shwe Oo’s comments attest, this has been reflected on Facebook, the use of which has grown exponentially in the last two years as censorship has been reduced and internet connection has spread and sped up across the country.
This phenomenon has been ignored in Europe and the United States, where Aung San Suu Kyi— who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991— has been criticised for her slow and weak response to radical nationalism and religious violence in Burma, which has been predominantly perpetrated by Buddhists against Muslims. ‘I can’t do everything,’ she has said in explanation, but her inaction is frequently attributed instead to self-interest (popularity among the electorate) and bias (she is Buddhist).
On the ground, the situation is more complicated—and far harder to ethically traverse— than Aung San Suu Kyi’s critics acknowledge. The NLD is operating in an increasingly hostile and prejudiced local context in which their actions are often misconstrued and Facebook is helping to perpetuate this.
Shwe Oo is one of more than twenty-five adult students I interviewed while conducting research at a monastic school in Mandalay. In Mandalay, Aung San Suu Kyi’s actions are perceived differently. Almost everybody I spoke to believed her to be a staunch supporter of Burmese Muslims, and against 969. Hla Maung, 23, felt that Aung San Suu Kyi’s desire to please the West, and her devotion to human rights, has led her to put international interests before those of “her people” and to fail to protect Burmese culture. As a political leader, Hla Maung believes Aung San Suu Kyi is “unsuitable” for Burma.
Some of Hla Maung’s peers were less certain. Lwin Thu— who is Christian— admitted to being confused. Aung San Suu Kyi has been seen as near saintly in Burma for decades, yet the press and public opinion are now largely against her. Lwin Thu suggested that this might be the result of manipulation by the government. “I don’t know what to believe,” she told me.
However, among young people in Burma the press is rarely a direct source of news. My participants responded nearly invariably that their views were shaped by what they read and the interactions they had on Facebook. As a topic of discussion, Aung San Suu Kyi is “very hot right now,” said Swe Swe Mon, 23, leaning back in her chair and looking knowing.
Her classmate, Kyaw, 20, recently ‘liked’ the far-right Myanmar Defense League page because he wanted to see what news this posted. So did more than 12,000 other people. Online, Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments on religious violence are met with vitriolic criticism from groups like this, and from individual supporters of 969. Much propaganda comes directly from Wirathu, who has preached sermons claiming that the inner circle of the NLD is dominated by Muslims. A video of this, shared from YouTube, is probably what Shwe Oo watched.
Wirathu denies that it is his intention to alienate Aung San Suu Kyi, to victimise Muslims or that ‘nationalist movement’ is an accurate characterization of 969.
When I visited Masoeyin monastery, Wirathu’s home, he told me the same thing as many of my interviewees; the numbers relate to different attributes of Buddhism, he said— “everyone knows that this is all it means, even dogs.” He then contradicted himself, explaining that many people use 969 stickers to distinguish between Buddhist and Muslim shops. “Burmese shouldn’t go to Muslim shops,” he said. “When Muslims become rich they use the money to tempt Burmese girls into marriage. They convert and abuse these girls.”
Wirathu told me that he likes Aung San Suu Kyi, “she is a good citizen,” he said, but “her information is incorrect” on incidents of religious violence, the status of the Rohingya and the threat Islam poses in Burma. Nobody can “reach her heart with the truth,” he said. He seems intent on trying, however— while we were speaking he used Facebook continuously on his tablet. He told me that he dislikes social media. “Most of the people who use Facebook are bad citizens,” he said. “They do not respect each other’s ideas.” He, however, is using it to disseminate “truth,” he claims.
The precise intent of 969 towards Aung San Suu Kyi is difficult to ascertain; Reuters has traced the campaign past Wirathu, to an official of the previous government – a military junta which ruled Burma until it began to democratise in 2010. Like some of my interviewees, Reuters points to the large number of ex-junta generals who are still part of the government today, suggesting that it might be in their interests to undermine Aung San SuuKyi among the Buddhist majority; as well as leading the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi is an emblem of democracy in Burma, and for some of these generals democratic reforms are proving far less profitable than military rule.
What is easy to ascertain are the implications of the current situation for Aung San Suu Kyi: while speaking out more in defence of Muslims would please many in the West, in Burma, her words would be misconstrued and used to alienate her from those she seeks to influence. This would to do little to help Burmese Muslims. On the other hand, winning the election in 2015 would allow her to do much more.
For now, in Mandalay, Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity will probably continue to decline. Many of my interviewees were already aware that the things they saw on Facebook could be manipulative, but they considered this an unavoidable inconvenience. As a consequence of a historically censored and propagandising media, Facebook has become established as a place to share and receive unfiltered news in Burma. This may be ironic now, as Facebook has become Burma’s most convenient vessel for propaganda, but according to my participants it is unlikely to change.
“In the past I admired Aung San Suu Kyi, but after the conflict in Rakhine state I changed my mind,” explained Hla Maung. “Maybe I have been influenced by a lot of people who use Facebook.” He shrugged. “But I haven’t met Aung San Suu Kyi, so I have to read news about her online.”