[DECODE] Facebook, the military junta’s favorite tool in Burma to persecute the Rohingyas

by bold-lichterman

For a large part of the Burmese, Facebook appears to be synonymous with the Internet. And for good reason, in this Southeast Asian country, wedged between Thailand and China, the American social network has more than 18 million users in a population of 53 million inhabitants. Strongly adopted by the Burmese, the platform experienced a spectacular take-off from 2014, when the military junta, in power since Ne Win’s coup in 1962, decided to ease restrictions on the use of cell phones.

If the democratization of mobile terminals could have enabled the Burmese to open up more to the world, it was not in reality for two reasons. First of all, most of the users do not master the codes of online navigation. “Facebook has become a kind of de facto internet in Burma», Told the New York Times Jes Kaliebe Persen, the boss of Phandeeyar, Burma’s main tech hub that has helped Facebook grow in the country. “When people buy their first smartphone, the app comes pre-installed», He adds. In this context, it is difficult for a Burmese to ignore the existence of Facebook.

Therefore, the population not having received digital education, they are more vulnerable to false information. And it is precisely on this that the military junta has bet to exercise its propaganda. Taking advantage of the massive growth of mobile in the country in recent years, it has thus relied on this new communication channel to accentuate its control in Burma and especially to propagate a hate speech against the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority who live mainly in western Burma, a country that is 90% Buddhist.

A hatred between Buddhists and Muslims that dates back to the 19th century

Since the military junta came to power in 1962, this ethnic group has suffered constant persecution. They are notably accused of having supported the British army during the first Anglo-Burmese war from 1824 to 1826. This support led the Burmese separatists to consider them as traitors. The situation continued to worsen over time, especially during World War II, which was the scene of clashes between Muslims, supporting the British, and Buddhists, defending the Japanese for their part. The almost final rupture between the two populations was recorded after the Second World War, the Rohingyas once again supporting the British against the Burmese to avoid being persecuted by the latter.

The exclusion of this Muslim minority took an even more dramatic turn in 1982 when Ne Win, the former commander of the military junta, decided to withdraw Burmese nationality from the Rohingyas, unlike the other ethnic groups in the country who still can. benefit. The reason given? Nationality is only issued to peoples present on Burmese territory before the English invasion of 1823. Since then, the situation of the Rohingyas has continued to deteriorate, the latter no longer having the right to vote, to access certain jobs, or even buying a house.

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Credits: Shutterstock.

Aung San Suu Kyi, fallen hope

Become stateless and lacking freedom of movement, the Rohingyas regained hope in 2015 when Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi led her party, the National League for Democracy, to legislative victory of 2015, before reaching a position granting her the powers of a prime minister (the military having introduced a constitutional provision to prevent her from becoming president).

A supporter of national reconciliation and supported by the international community, Aung San Suu Kyi will nevertheless be distinguished by her silence despite her new position at the head of the Burmese state. Indeed, despite the increase in abuses against the Rohingyas, marked by a particularly violent repression in August 2017, the Burmese leader has never condemned the violence which was committed by the Burmese soldiers and Buddhist militias. Completely isolated, more than 700,000 members of this Muslim ethnic minority had no choice but to flee Burma in 2017 to seek refuge in Bangladesh.

The military junta adopts the Russian method on Facebook

If the coming to power of Aung San Suu Kyi did not change the situation, perhaps social networks, starting with Facebook, could help the Rohingyas to get out of this inextricable situation, in the same way that they played a central role in the “Arab Spring” revolutions in 2010? This was not the case and it is even the opposite that happened.

According to New York Times, the military junta has indeed identified the strike power of Mark Zuckerberg’s platform and has launched a campaign, based on the creation of troll accounts and popular entertainment pages to flood them with inflammatory comments, messages virals of a political, racist and violent nature, as well as false information intended to further reinforce the divisions between Muslims and Buddhists. The latter also follow the instructions of the Burmese army by engaging in abuses and advocating a word hostile to the Rohingyas. Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity at Facebook, confirmed to the American daily to have observed “clear and deliberate attempts to secretly disseminate propaganda directly related to the Burmese military“. This strategy is reminiscent of the method used by Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election.

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Credits: Shutterstock.

Facebook criticized by the UN

Criticized around the world since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook has seen the pressure on it increase dramatically in recent months over its involvement in anti-Rohingya propaganda. In March, the UN in particular raised the tone by accusing Facebook of having played “a determining roleIn the spread of hate speech in Burma, according to the findings of United Nations human rights experts investigating the Rohingya genocide on Burmese territory.

Facebook is used to convey messages to the population but we also know that ultra-nationalist Buddhists have their own pages and engage in incitement to violence and hatred against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities.», Declared the investigator Yanghee Lee before the Council of Human Rights of the United Nations in Geneva. “I’m afraid Facebook has now turned into some kind of monster, and not what it was originally intended for», She added.

From a Burmese speaking moderator in 2014 to four at the end of 2015

This summer, the dissemination of a survey of Reuters, called “Hatebook”, goes in the direction of the UN and provides details on the attempts of the social network to limit the dissemination of hateful content in Burma. Thus, the journalists of the press agency discovered that the American firm, however alerted by several NGOs since 2013, hardly acted before 2016.

It must be said that the moderation of content in this South-East Asian country was far from optimal with a single Burmese speaking moderator, based in Dublin, in 2014 and barely four at the end of 2015 when the social network then counted. 7.3 million users in Burma. In addition, the tools for the automatic detection of hateful content, on which Facebook relies to facilitate its task, encounter significant difficulties due to the characters of the Burmese language which sometimes struggle to display optimally on the screen.

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Credits: Shutterstock.

Facebook, reaction platform (too late)

While Facebook has increased its number of Burmese-speaking subcontracted moderators, most of them working from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, many NGOs consider that the efforts of the American firm are insufficient. “Facebook wastes no time removing swastikas, but it does nothing against Wirathu’s hate speech, which calls Muslims like dogs», Laments to the New York Times Phil Robertson, deputy director of the NGO Human Rights Watch in Asia.

The latter refers to the Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, nicknamed the “Burmese Hitler”, whose ultra-nationalist movement has been banned in Burma since May 2017. Until February 2018, time chosen by Facebook to finally delete his account, this one published on the social network hate messages against the Rohingyas, photos of corpses or violence in support that he considered as evidence of the massacres committed by the Muslim minority. When deleting Ashin Wirathu’s account, Facebook said that “community standards prohibit organizations and individuals who promote hatred and violence“. In August, the social network also said it had banned the commander-in-chief of the Burmese army, Min Aung Hlaing, accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes by the UN.

In the midst of a seduction operation to restore its image, despite the tiles that continue to accumulate, Facebook announced this week that it had proceeded with the deletion of 425 pages and 135 accounts, which behind their normal appearance hid links with the military junta in Burma . A figure that seems ridiculous compared to the Burmese population, which amounts to more than 50 million inhabitants. To be more convincing with the UN, Facebook will have to beef up its game in order to counter the military junta which has transformed a social network into a formidable ethnic cleansing tool. Otherwise, NGOs will take him to court and be punished by the international community.