The SEAPA Fellowship program was concluded on 31st August, 2013. And, the final stories are already published in their news organization starting from last week.
As SEAPA fellowship aims to distribute the stories as far and wide as possible across the region especially on Burma and Singapore. Their stories will be carried by different media outlets in Burma and other countries, too. (as SEAPA owns the copyright of the stories.) As of Burma, Irrawaddy and Myanmar Freedom Daily News has carried a few of our stories.
WHILE Myanmar may be seen as a "late bloomer" in terms of online connectivity, it has caught on fast and furious. And like the rest of the world, it is a major player in determining the political climate – spreading news, influence and fuelling emotions.
The hatred between the Buddhists and Muslims which turned ugly and violent in Rakhine state and spread to central Myanmar since March last year has wormed its way to the online space.
The hate speech circulating on Facebook has raised the eyebrows of many. Buddhists and Muslims are attacking each other openly online, at times inciting people to commit violent act against those of other faiths.
And the failure of the government to contain the violence has also raised questions.
As of end-August 2013, another clash has erupted in the Sagaing region, an hour's drive from Mandalay, Myanmar's second-largest city after Yangon, where a Muslim's house was burned down.
According to the Physicians for Human Rights, some reports released in May and June 2013 showed that anti-Muslim clashes and reprisal attacks have displaced more than 250,000 people, and destroyed over 10,000 houses, scores of mosques and a dozen monastries.
"People say that social media or Facebook is like the walls of a toilet. You know in the very poor areas in our country, the toilet walls are very dirty. People write whatever they want on the walls," said Khin Lay, founder of Triangle Women Support Group.
Cheaper Internet access and mobile phones have provided a "licence" for people from all strata of society – any background, any education level – to post "dirty" words online, Khin said.
Many online users who have harboured deep hatred towards people of other faiths now have a channel to vent their anger, provoke and stir sentiments, albeit irrationally.
Online hate speech is a worrying trend, and many media practitioners or social activists who talked to the writer in Yangon felt that something else was also at play. Could it be a pre-planned scheme to set back the democratisation process in the country?
Nay Phone Latt, the executive director of Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation (MIDO), pointed out that there are big groups with huge funding and backgrounds that intentionally create these hate speeches to incite violence around the country.
"Our constitution states that the military can seize power when there is violence," said Nay.
Real or manufactured?
Nay expressed doubts over "sources" of the hate speeches, as whenever a certain user posted some inflammatory remarks, he or she will get 150 shares within two to three minutes, which is unbelievably fast.
"The first source (of hate speech) is not from the ordinary people," he added.
Thiha Maung Maung, project coordinator of Yangon Journalism School, noticed the modus operandi of certain Facebook pages which confirms his belief that many hate speeches are pre-planned.
He explained that some Facebook pages was camouflaged as football fan pages, or with humourous content to attract followers. The pages then change their "personalities", incorporating more and more nationalistic content as time goes by.
"These kind of Facebook accounts and pages are very alike. The status they have or photos they posted are similar. It seems like the work of the same person or the same group of people," Thiha observed.
Shunlei felt uneasy when she saw a doctored photo of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (Daw is an honorific, literally meaning "aunt") with her face attached to the body of an exposed woman.
"There are two types of people – those who support the government and those who support Aung San Suu Kyi. They are fighting each other. The president and Aung San Suu Kyi are big figures. When someone post something on Aung San Suu Kyi's side, the pro-government users will say something nasty. They really hate her," she said.
Coming from a military family, Shunlei has two groups of friends on her Facebook. The critical university friends consisted of Burman and other ethnic groups, and her high school friends who enjoy their social status as members of military families who study at the military high school.
As she has been involved in organising the International Day for Peace (IDP), and had participated in a peace march last year, some of her old friends questioned her activist work. Once, a junior left the group she led as he felt that it was better to stay away from politics.
"He might think it was better not to be involved with the group I led. It's not that he was frightened, but in his mindset, it was best to get away from politics.
"His parents are still government workers, but so are my parents. Sometimes, I feel guilty too if my activities affect my dad's work. I'm not sure yet. Thus, I decided that I won't show up in media or public though I can't help but to be involved in political affairs as an active youth," Shunlei shared her dilemma with the writer.
Peter, 33, a civil society member is also troubled by the hate speeches online that had inflamed the emotions of people, and he was attacked (on cyberspace) when he called on others to discuss issues rationally.
However, Peter believes that it is not all bad on the virtual world. People from different religious and political divides can use online media as a platform to engage and negotiate, instead of hurling abusive words at one another in an attempt to express themselves.
"They could use online media to find some common ground amidst their differences, but it hasn't happened that way.
"They can't find any common ground on internet. They just post abusive things and when some people try to rationalise, they will just say 'Don't talk rubbish, I don't believe in that'," he added.
Peter, who studed in the United Kingdom, pointed out that religious and political crises, natural or manufactured, are common since the colonial days.
"Whenever people resisted or there was a political change, the government would start a Buddhist and Muslim crisis. If you study our history, in the 1930s and after independence, there were many religious and political crises.
"That's why we suspect the recent religious crisis was created by some groups who don't want political changes in Myanmar. And online media have become a tool for such unscrupulous acts,"said Peter.
The deep-rooted problem between the Buddhists and the Muslims could be traced back to the economic power struggle, in which the rich Muslims were suppressing the poor Buddhists, Khin said, citing the cases of many Buddhist women marrying Muslims and converting to Islam to uplift their living standards.
Also, the blend of nationalism and Buddhism by the outspoken 969 Movement leader Ashin Wirathu, who claims that Muslims are outsiders and thus should be driven out from this Golden Land, has successfully stirred up the emotions of the people.
"These days, what the majority Burmese say is that we don't want democracy, we want our religion. In the past, the popularity of NLD is high but currently is going down. Why? It (online hate speech) can be a tool and weapon of government or opposition of NLD to bring their dignity down and reduce their popularity.
"Before crisis, especially in 2012 by election, NLD won a lot. And the Rakhine crisis happened just after that," he said. NLD won more than 90% of the seats in the by election.
Ye also observed a similar trend. For many years, he said, the people were very critical of the ruling party, but now the monks were ironically rallying in support of them.
According to Peter, there's growing criticism against Daw Suu for her and NLD's silence on the religious conflict spreading around the country, and that has affected her popularity as many expected her to be the voice of the conscience.
Some analysts believed that her silence is due to the coming presidential election because the majority of the electorates are Buddhist.
President U Thein Sein had acted quickly to suggest the Rohingya Muslim be deported from the country, a stand that won the approval of 5,000 monks in Mandalay who had marched in support of his statement openly.
However, NLD spokesperson U Nyan Win denied that the crisis has affected the party's popularity.
Growing pains of going online
While were irked by the hate speeches, Nyo Oho Myint, a peace facilitator of the Myanmar Peace Centre, a centre set up under the President's Office, defended the online exchanges.
The Burmese people are merely exercising their new found freedom online after five decades of political suppression, Nyo said.
"Myanmar people are socially conservative but prefer liberal ideas politically. They are outspoken and do not look at the consequences, thus these are not actually hate speeches, because they have no hidden agenda .
"Many people are using their freedom of speech now to express their feelings," Nyo said.
However, he did express concerns over the nature of social media through which unverified information spread like wildfire.
The budding but fragile democracy that Myanmar is experiencing, as well as the nature of the online platform and social media are the "growing pains" of this Golden Land.
And this begs serious discussions on maintaining social harmony while allowing a bigger freedom of expression at the same time.
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