Following the recently concluded elections in Myanmar, EngageMedia sits down with Maung Zarni, Burmese scholar and co-founder of Forces of Renewal Southeast Asia (FORSEA), to discuss how the poll results tie into the bigger digital rights challenges that the country is facing today. The eighth episode of the podcast also discusses Facebook’s role in the Rohingya crisis, and if they’ve done enough since their 2018 admission that it was used to incite violence against the ethnic group.
Listen to the Podcast
Watch the Podcast
- In an October 2020 pre-election assessment of Myanmar, Freedom House noted the following key issues to watch out for in the country: hate speech and violence against marginalised groups, the ongoing internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin states, the military’s influence over online discourses, censorship of local and regional media outlets, and arrests and intimidation against activists, journalists, and other critical voices.
- The 2020 elections in Myanmar is only its second that heavily incorporated digital technologies in the process. But reception to these technologies has been varied. For instance, a voter app was widely criticised for labelling Rohingya Muslims as “Bengali”.
- Prior to the elections, the country’s Union Election Commission issued nine guidelines on what campaign speeches can contain. These rules, coupled with the controversial Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law that criminalises online defamation, has been decried by many critical voices as outright censorship, particularly in light of the spread of fake news and disinformation related to the elections.
- In 2018, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) released an Independent Assessment of the Human Rights Impact of Facebook in Myanmar, which had Facebook admitting that its platform was used to incite violence in Myanmar, particularly against the Rohingya Muslims.
- Facebook’s inability to curb the hate speech has been documented in special reports by Reuters and the New York Times, among other outlets.
- While Facebook has since taken down accounts belonging to Myanmar military officials who perpetuated the hate speech, it appears to be blocking an ongoing genocide investigation that is being pursued by West African nation The Gambia. This move follows its 2019 pronouncement of four Ethnic Armed Organisations as “dangerous” terrorist groups, further labelling the platform as “pro-regime, anti-minority“.
- Further exacerbating the digital rights challenges in the country is the world’s longest internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin states. The internet shutdown, which has been ongoing since June 2019, continues to be criticised locally and internationally. The internet shutdown can also be linked to COVID-19 cases in the country and the censorship of local media when reporting on what is happening in Rakhine.
- Among those arrested for protesting the internet shutdown are poet Maung Saungkha, who was arrested after he hung a banner in Yangon that said, “Is the internet being shut down to hide war crimes and killing people?”.