THE Facebook account of Burma’s most notorious firebrand Buddhist monk, once deemed “Burmese bin Laden,” was wiped this week for his incendiary posts about Muslims.
Ashin Wirathu has for years used his social media platform to disseminate anti-Muslim hate speech, divisive sermons and dangerous rumours about the stateless Rohingya minority. He’s also long been accused of stoking sectarian violence between the country’s Buddhist majority and the small Muslim minority.
Facebook has become incredibly popular in Burma (Myanmar) since the newly formed government opened up the telecoms sector in 2013, making it easier for people to access the Internet in the Buddhist-majority country.
While the proliferation of smartphones and cheap sim cards has opened up the world for the people of Burma, disinformation campaigns and inflammatory speech has also been able to spread unchecked. The social media giant has come under intense criticism for failing to curb the vitriolic, anti-Rohingya propaganda that has circulated on the platform, especially in recent months during the violent crackdown in Rakhine State.
Today, hate speech against the Rohingya is pervasive online. And it’s not just coming from hardline extremists. News feeds in Burma are rife with anti-Rohingya posts, shared not only by ordinary people but also by senior military officers and the spokesman for Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Throughout the current military “clearance operation,” which have resulted in almost 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing across the border to Bangladesh, allegations of violence perpetrated by the Rohingya have been common on pages of those representing the government.
In September, Zaw Htay, a spokesman for Suu Kyi, even used his Facebook page to share the claim that some Rohingya burned their own villages and then blamed it on Burmese security forces, along with images since proven to have been doctored.
“Views about people in Rakhine state, about the origins of population and about things that may or may not have happened fly around Facebook extremely quickly and can create unstable situations,” Richard Weir, an Asia analyst with Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times.
When attempts are made to silence ultranationalist voices in the real world, they just move online, broadcasting their hate speech to a wider audience, as was the case with Wirathu and his organisation, known locally as Ma Ba Tha.
After Nobel laureate Suu Kyi came to power in 2016, the government dissolved the Ma Ba Tha group and slapped the monk with a one-year speaking ban. This only led him to redoubling his social media efforts, amassing hundreds of thousands of followers who help circulate his incendiary sermons and videos.
While the removal of his page may have temporarily stemmed the flow of hate-filled material, it most certainly won’t stop it.
“They remove his account but not his videos, and his religious hate speeches, they are still on Facebook and his followers are spreading it,” Thet Swe Win, a Yangon-based interfaith activist, told AFP.