SWM 2014: The role of civil society in countering hate speech in Burma

Case study by Hanna Hindstrom

The rise of extremist rhetoric against Burma’s Muslim minority has been facilitated by the government’s reluctance to take meaningful steps to curb this hate speech. Even pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has attracted criticism for her apparent silence on the targeted abuse and displacement of tens of thousands of Rohingya. The escalation of the violence since the recent thawing of the country’s authoritarian rule, as well as the failure of both sides to speak out forcefully against it, has raised concerns about Burma’s future.

However, while the relaxation of civil restrictions has enabled extremist outfits such as 969 to disseminate hate speech with impunity, civil society organizations and moderate religious leaders have also expanded their voice – and these groups continued to oppose vocally the divisive narrative of Wirathu and his supporters during 2013. In April, grassroots activists took to the streets of Rangoon and Mandalay to distribute thousands of stickers and t-shirts carrying the messages ‘There will be no racial, religious conflicts because of me’, and ‘Burmese citizens don’t discriminate by race and religion’. The initiative was specifically launched to counter the rapid spread of 969 publicity across the country. Organizers reported that it was overwhelmingly well received.

It echoes statements by some monks, such as Ashin Issariya from Rangoon – a former leader in Burma’s 2007 pro-democracy uprising – that the majority of Buddhist clergy oppose the violence and were at the helm of humanitarian relief efforts in Meiktila. ‘The real message of the 969 is not to attack other religions, but some monks are using it like a shield,’ Issariya told New Internationalist, referring to the three ‘jewels’ of the Buddha that the numbers represent. ‘Real Buddhists are not angry with Muslims.’

Some media organizations have tentatively begun to explore the issue of hate speech, with the Thailand-based pro-democracy broadcaster, DVB Multimedia Group, hosting a debate on the subject in November. Meanwhile, Archbishop Charles Bo of Rangoon has publicly thrown his weight behind calls for Rohingya citizenship, adding that interfaith dialogue and education is the only way to resolve the crisis in western Burma. Speaking in November, he urged moderate religious leaders to take the lead. ‘Serious dialogue among religious leaders would have more weight than any political decision,’ he said. ‘Where there is dialogue, hate speech and misunderstandings give way to solidarity and empathy.’

This article appears in MRG’s annual flagship report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014. View the full report.

Photo: An internally displaced family in a makeshift shelter, Burma. Copyright: Minority Rights Group International

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Date: 13/06/2014




State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014
Racism/Discrimination/Hate speech
Religion/Religious minorities

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