April 2013 News

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April 2013 News

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Stirring up hatred through social media (click to view article)

Tensions are rising between ethnic and religious groups in Myanmar, and so-called unofficial blogs and websites seem determined to fan the flames of conflict

In the often murky world of Myanmar's social media, propaganda is ubiquitous. Be it pro-military or anti-anything from Muslims to the media, to Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation's Facebook pages and blogs are full of it.

While we can never know exactly who is responsible for creating these platforms, their content can provide clues to the identity of their authors. Many regularly feature the national flag, while others favour images of the warrior king statues that stand at the entrance to the Defence Services Academy in Pyin Oo Lwin.

Despite the secrecy, Buddhist monk Ashin Issariya, who was arrested for his role in the 2007 ''Saffron Revolution'', said he is convinced that many of the sites are the work of the military.

''The warrior kings represent the army, so they must be linked in some way,'' he said.

Blogger Nay Phone Latt, who is also the executive director of the Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation, told Spectrum that he too believes that many supposedly unofficial blogs are in fact conduits for state propaganda.

It's ''suspicious'', he said, ''just how quickly some groups are able to upload and distribute information'', especially those that seek to incite violence.

''Many of the sites feature the national flag and photos from Nay Pyi Taw, and most of their news comes from government websites,'' he said.

Despite his suspicions, it remains ''really difficult'' to prove who exactly is behind the sites, Nay Phone Latt said.

''The groups use two kinds of platforms,'' he said. ''The first is for the publication of propaganda messages, such as encouraging violence between ethnic or religious groups, while the second is for communicating with their supporters.''

In an informal study of 10 websites by anonymous authors, Spectrum found that they all contained items that were pro-military, anti-Muslim and anti-opposition, with Mrs Suu Kyi, Min Ko Naing, the 88 Generation Students Group and other prominent activists among those specifically targeted.

To attract readers, the sites often use pornography, malicious gossip and salacious rumours, including one suggesting that Mrs Suu Kyi had a child while she was under house arrest.

One of the country's most popular websites is, which was set up in 2011, about the same time Mrs Suu Kyi was given her freedom. The site is registered in Moscow and since its creation has generated more than 22 million page views.

Adding weight to the suggestion that the military is behind these sites is the high number of army personnel that are given advanced training in information technology.

In their 2011 paper ''Russia, Myanmar and Nuclear Technologies'', prepared for the Nuclear Club journal, authors Anton Khlopkov and Dmitry Konukhov said that since 2001, Myanmar's Ministry of Science and Technology has sent about 500 students a year to Russian universities. In the 2010-11 academic year, Myanmar sent more students to Russian universities than any other country in the world.

As well as being graduates of Myanmar's leading technology institutes, the vast majority of the students sent to Russia each year are military officers, predominantly lieutenants and captains, the report said.

Sai Thein Win is a former major in the Myanmar army who fled the country in 2010 after revealing details of the government's suspected nuclear weapons programme. Now living in Norway, he told Spectrum that his email account was hacked in 2011 and that his personal data was posted on

Using his IT skills Sai Thein Win was able to track down the hacker, who he discovered was also a military man.

''The hacker was an army officer who had studied in Russia. I could also tell from the IP address that he was based in Myanmar,'' he said.

Sai Thein Win said it was also clear that blogs like Myanmar Express and Opposite Eyes have links to official organisations.

''Lots of these sites have access to photographs and information that simply would not be available to anyone outside the police or military,'' he said.

''The blogs are set up to turn public opinion against people like Aung San Suu Kyi and organisations such as the 88 Generation Students Group,'' he said.

''They also try to stir up religious conflict, like what happened in Rakhine and Meiktila.''


In 2012, an Arakanese woman was raped and murdered, allegedly by Muslim men, in the village of Kyauk Ni Maw, a remote community in the west of Myanmar. Long before the incident was officially reported by the government, countless ''unofficial'' websites and blogs broke the story.

Several of them even ran a photo of the victim, though none provided a source for the image. Where it came from, nobody can say for sure.

What is known for certain is that less than a week after the reports were published, 10 Muslim clergymen were slaughtered in the town of Taungup, Rakhine state, by an angry mob hell-bent on revenge. The incident sparked further rioting by both Muslims and Buddhists throughout Rakhine.

Since the conflicts in Rakhine began, about 200 people have been killed, countless numbers have been injured and more than 70,000 have been left homeless. The clashes have led to the destruction of 16,000 houses, 14 monasteries, 45 mosques and three schools.

And through it all, social media platforms have fanned the flames of hatred and mistrust.

Alongside the online antagonists, Buddhist monk Wira Thu has been keen to promote his own brand of anti-Muslim propaganda.

Jailed in 2003 for stirring up religious conflict, and released in 2012 under an amnesty, Wira Thu more recently created the 969 movement, which he says represents the Buddha, the Damah and the Sangha.

More importantly, it serves as a counter to the 786 symbol used by Muslim communities in Myanmar, he said.

Yet despite Wira Thu's seeming desire to stir up conflict, Kyaw Soe, general secretary of the All Myanmar Moulvi (Ulama Al Haque) organisation, said that 786 has nothing to do with Islam.

''It's just a lucky number that's popular within Muslim communities in Myanmar,'' he said.

For months prior to the latest attacks on Muslims in Meiktila, Kyaw Soe said he was aware of trouble brewing. The riots were inevitable due to the efforts of Wira Thu's followers to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment among the public, he said, adding that he warned the Muslim community to stay away from the conflict.


Earlier this year, Buddhist monks from Mon state organised an anti-Muslim campaign under the 969 banner. With the help of religious talks, DVDs and stickers they fomented bigotry and mistrust, encouraging Buddhists to shop only at Buddhist stores, to marry only other Buddhists and to support only their own communities.

Ashin Issariya said he was surprised by the government's ignorance of the 969 movement and its seeming reluctance to respond to its antagonistic actions.

''It's really strange that the Ministry of Religious Affairs allowed the campaign to raise tension between the two groups,'' he told Spectrum. ''After the monks' protest in 2007, we were sentenced to 15 years in prison for using a single Gmail account. So why don't the authorities take action against a group that is openly running a campaign to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment?''

As well as the talks and DVDs, the sectarian views of the 969 movement are regurgitated and reinforced via countless social media sites, he said.

''This is a well planned campaign by a group of people that uses religious bigotry to further their political ambitions. I have warned my people not to become scapegoats,'' he said.

Kyaw Soe said he wrote to Myint Swe, the chief minister of Yangon region in February, urging him to curb the activities of religious groups in the former capital that seek to incite hatred and violence.

''I just can't understand why the government has not taken any action to restrict that kind of religious movement. And I feel really sad for that,'' he said.

Blogger Nay Phone Latt said he too ''has no idea why the government allows it [the 969 movement] to manipulate communities''.


Disputes between Myanmar's different racial and religious groups are not uncommon, but the violence that broke out in Rakhine last year and in Meiktila and other cities last month took the conflict to a whole new level.

In Meiktila, the spark that ignited the violence is widely believed to have been a dispute between the Muslim owner of a gold shop and two would-be customers, both Buddhists.

But what could, and probably should, have been nothing more than a minor spat rapidly escalated into mass murder and rioting. And all thanks to a group of anonymous online rabble-rousers, relentlessly banging the drum for intolerance and hatred via their blogs and websites.

In the 10 days that followed the gold shop row, the riots spread from Meiktila to 14 other cities. The wave of violence left 43 people dead, 86 injured and more than 1,300 buildings _ mostly mosques, schools and the homes of Muslims _ destroyed.

For bloggers such as Nay Phone Latt and Kyaw Soe, and the leader of the 88 Generation Students Group, Min Ko Naing, the government's failure to respond adequately to the unrest was clear evidence of its complicity. Recounting the interviews he conducted in Meiktila Muslim communities soon after the riots, Kyaw Soe said, ''Eyewitnesses told me that all the members of the mobs carried the same type of knife, which was about 60cm long. They also said that the men signalled to one another with whistles, so they were clearly well trained.''

Some of the rioters even disguised themselves as monks, he said.

''Several witnesses said they saw the men take off their robes and burned them with the dead bodies after the killings.''

The mobs were clearly being guided by people behind the scenes, he said.

''They killed only Muslims,'' he said. ''It was like genocide.''

What saddens Kyaw Soe most is that when they are not being manipulated by shadowy groups and their social media platforms, Myanmar's Buddhists and Muslims get along just fine. Indeed, during the riots and attacks in Meiktila, many Muslims were given refuge in the homes of their Buddhist neighbours, he said.


Creating instability and nurturing an atmosphere of mistrust and fear among different religious and ethnic groups has long been a tactic used by governments around the world to maintain control.

They fan the flames of religious intolerance and ethnic hatred, so that when riots break out, the military has the excuse it needs to take to the streets and impose its rule.

In his article ''The Vicious Cycle of Extreme Nationalism'' published on April 8 in Irrawaddy magazine, Czech Republic-based human rights campaigner Igor Blazevic wrote of the lessons he learned in his home country of Bosnia in the early 1990s.

''Ethnic cleansing does not come about because of spontaneous violence by a mob or by grassroots communities that allegedly hate each other,'' he said.

''It is usually the work of well-trained paramilitary groups organised by elements of the security apparatus. Their task is to do the dirty work without showing the direct link to the regular forces, officials and their political patrons.''

The recent killings in Meiktila were by no means the first of their kind in Myanmar. The massacres during the 1988 uprising, the attacks on Mrs Suu Kyi and her supporters in Depeyin in May, 2003, and the killing of 10 Muslim pilgrims in Taungup in May all pay testimony to the country's bloody past.

Whether or not these atrocities were committed by military or paramilitary groups, the fact remains that the government did nothing to bring those responsible for the killings to justice.

The rule of law in Myanmar would seem to apply only when the government deems it necessary to declare a state of emergency and put troops on the streets.

The killings in Meiktila did, however, prompt a response from the government. President Thein Sein said that the efforts of ''political opportunists and religious extremists who try to exploit the noble teachings of these religions and have tried to plant hatred among people of different faiths for their own self-interest will not be tolerated''.

According to Kyaw Soe, the president's words seem to confirm the presence of a controlling body, or puppet master, behind the conflicts.

''I really think that there might be a group within the government that doesn't want democracy, so they are doing all they can to disrupt the country's progress towards it,'' he said.

''If the government fails to identify who or what that is, the violence will continue.''