Hate Speech Among Military Party’s Supporters on The Rise Ahead of Myanmar Election

Supporters of Myanmar’s military-aligned opposition party have been spreading hate speech at increasing levels on the campaign trail leading up to the country’s general election this weekend, a London-based rights group alleged Wednesday.

The nation of 54 million people, which emerged from harsh military rule a decade ago, goes to the polls on Nov. 8. Some 7,000 candidates from more than 90 parties are vying for more than 1,100 seats in both houses of the national parliament and in state and regional legislatures.

The Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN) documented in a report 39 instances of hate speech, bigotry and misinformation on social media by supporters of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) during the 2020 election campaign period. The USDP formed the previous government.

The BHRN report noted that some of the posts, which allege that the ruling National League for Democracy party (NLD) is conspiring with Muslim groups, have been shared over 2,000 times.

In response the NLD has attempted to distance itself from Muslims with “divisive rhetoric” meant to exclude them from the electoral system, the NGO said.

"Burma remains plagued with bigotry, hate speech, and exclusion. The government aspires for a seat at the table of free nations but refuses to earn its place there,” said BHRN Executive Director Kyaw Win in a press release.

“Our report details Burma's failures to its citizens by enabling and participating in hate speech, restricting the rights of minorities, and denying representation to them,” he added, using Myanmar’s former name.

“It is an uncomfortable truth that the results of this election cannot be viewed as fully legitimate without the inclusion of all of Burma's people, but acknowledging this may be the only way to ensure that the next election will be free and fair for all," he said.

Kyaw Win told RFA Wednesday that anti-Muslim groups in Myanmar are spreading misinformation and unfounded claims on social media.

“For example, one group has been distributing leaflets in Bogale township in the Ayeyarwady region saying that Muslim men that marry Burmese women are establishing Muslim villages. They are distributing this kind of fake news,” said Kyaw Win.

The USDP, however, denied that incidents of hate speech were coming from its supporters.

“Our party’s policy focuses on the stability of the country. Hate speech serves only to destabilize the country and disrupt peace and security. We would never engage in such activities,” USDP spokesman Thein Tun Oo told RFA.

'Very destructive'

NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt told RFA that his party has been on the receiving end of personal, religious and racial attacks, and that it has filed complaints with the Union Election Commission (UEC).

Southeast Asia-based rights organization Fortify Rights said the hate speech could lead to physical violence if not stopped.

“These hate speeches are very destructive, especially in the time of an election campaign,” Nickey Diamond, an activist affiliated with the group, told RFA.

“It won’t lead to violence immediately, but all incidents of violence are connected to hate speech… Both the ruling government and the new government should address the issue seriously,” said Diamond.

Anti-Muslim hate speech has been a serious issue in Myanmar since communal clashes between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists in June and October 2012 in the state capital Sittwe that left as many as 280 people dead and made 130,000 homeless.

Five years after those killings, Myanmar’s military responded to attacks by Rohingya militants on border posts with a scorched-earth campaign that destroyed countless Rohingya villages and drove 740,000 members of the Muslim minority into neighboring Bangladesh.

The BHRN said the government is failing to take action against hate speech.

“When someone speaks out against the government, they get arrested, but the government never takes actions against the people who are spreading hate speech on social media and inciting riots,” said Kyaw Win.

“They manipulate the law any way they want,” he said.

The President's Office, however, disputed the claim that the government is failing to take action, saying that it reports offending videos to Facebook if the social media giant does not detect and remove them.

“What I mean is, we are doing the best we can to prevent the provocation of racial violence in times like these,” said government spokesman Zaw Htay.

“We have already stated in previous press conferences that the president has issued orders to take action against assailants around the country,” he said.

No specific laws

But the NLD’s Myo Nyunt said the problem is that there is no specific law restricting hate speech and bigotry.

“We have not enacted any laws specific to these acts. We can only stop it effectively after we approve the laws. … We are going to handle this issue under the law,” he said

A Yangon-based lawyer said that Section 294 of Myanmar’s Penal Code, which refers to “obscene acts and songs,” can be used to prosecute hate speech.

“The law applies to more than hate speech against ethnic groups. It can also prevent personal defamatory speech,” attorney Kyee Myint said.

“Article 294 has been in place since the time of the British colonial administration, and it is still active now. I think the ruling government is just not able to enforce this law efficiently,” he said.

The NLD is seeking reelection Sunday after taking power from the pro-military USDP in the last national vote held in 2015.

The stiffest competition again will be between the NLD, which is fielding 1,143 candidates, and the USDP, which has put 1,129 candidates forward.

Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.