Image: Flickr CC Adam Cohn

Image: Flickr CC Adam Cohn

Stirring Hatreds Ahead of Myanmar Elections

4 March 2020


Ethnic and religious nationalism has increasingly gripped Myanmar since intercommunal violence broke out between Burmese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in 2012. Viral disinformation, including videos of alleged terrorist attacks and anti-Rohingya propaganda linked to military accounts, has spread on Facebook, deepening divides along lines of ethnic and religious identity. With national elections looming in November, fake news and anti-Muslim hate speech inspired by militant Buddhist nationalism have the potential to incite further conflict.

Myanmar’s pro-military opposition, the Union Solidarity & Development Party (USDP), has repeatedly attacked the nationalist credentials of Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) in an effort to appeal to voters. The NLD last month filed a complaint with the Union Election Commission after former USDP Agriculture Minister Myint Hlaing gave a speech to constituents alleging that the NLD would repeal laws protecting race and religion – tinderbox issues in the conflict-torn country.

The USDP has used such tactics successfully in the past. In 2013, violence between Buddhists and Muslims near Mandalay helped the USDP reclaim a seat from the NLD in 2015 elections. The USDP appears intent to play the nationalism card again in order to steal support from the NLD.

In 2015, Buddhist nationalists belonging to a group called MaBaTha (the Association for Protection of Race and Religion) forced legislation safeguarding Buddhism and the majority ethnic Bamar group in Myanmar’s Parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party opposed the laws, drawing backlash from a resentful and organised MaBaTha. When the NLD took power in 2016, it legally dissolved MaBaTha, although the group soon reorganised under a different name.

Despite attempts to suppress the group’s public platform, radical Buddhist nationalists have leveraged social media to further spread their message, and MaBaTha’s online influence remains pervasive. Increased impact enabled by high-speed internet and social media has exacerbated Myanmar’s ethnic and religious divisions, as fake news, nationalist slogans, and viral misinformation have combined in unpredictable and combustible ways to steer political debate.

Alongside the outbreak of violence in Rakhine State, which forced around 140,000 Rohingya into internal displacement camps and more than 700,000 into Bangladesh, online hate speech has cemented a xenophobic narrative by hard-line Myanmar Buddhists demonizing the Rohingya. A 2015 report by the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business found that nearly 90% of online hate speech targeted Muslims. A prominent freedom of expression advocate in Yangon described how race-based disinformation is especially prevalent near elections, and by-elections in November 2018 saw a spike in hate speech against the Rohingya. A new investigation by fact-checking organization Annie Lab found that six Russian-linked Facebook accounts, mimicking authentic news outlets, had spread pro-military propaganda criticising the NLD and fomenting hate against the Rohingya. The accounts reached an audience of at least 4.4 million followers.

Government officials helped spread a narrative casting doubt on Rohingya refugees’ accounts and defending the military’s actions in Rakhine, which international rights groups have described as genocide. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) recently upheld Gambia’s case against Myanmar, and ordered authorities to guarantee the safety of Rohingya living in Myanmar and to prevent security forces from committing further acts of genocide.

After decades of military dictatorship, political reforms in 2010 allowed minority groups frustrated with the status quo to contest the majority Bamar ethnic group’s rule in elections. While conflict between the military and ethnic armed groups has wracked the country’s north, the Rohingya crisis has riven central Myanmar’s fault lines. International condemnation of the government’s mishandling of the conflict in Rakhine has unified Burmese nationalists and led the NLD to clamp down on dissent by jailing critics and journalists who contradict the official line. Large swaths of citizens previously opposed to military rule in the 2000s now march in solidarity with the armed forces and stand by Aung San Suu Kyi’s defence of the military at the ICJ.

With the steady deterioration of freedom of expression under NLD rule, extremist ideology has overpowered calls for tolerance and dashed hopes of national reconciliation for Myanmar’s minority groups. Many expect further instability as the country prepares for elections in November. According to one Yangon-based analyst, “hate speech tends to spike at politically sensitive times, such as during elections or conflicts”.

Myanmar’s winner-take-all electoral system incentivises parties to inflame their existing base, rather than appeal to new voters, because a party only needs a plurality of votes to win a district. Political analysts predict that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party may not win by the landslide it did in 2015. Hoping to prevent further erosion at the polls, the NLD may thus follow the opposition’s lead in playing to racial and religious identity, which would make this already turbulent election year even more troubled.

Hunter Marston is a PhD candidate in the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, at the Australian National University, and his work on Southeast Asia has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, and Foreign Policy.

This piece originally appeared on The Interpreter, 4 March 2020.

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