Myanmar’s flood response, Facebook communities, and Buddhist-Muslim violence.
“How do you feel about today?” my colleague asked me.
It was early April and we had just finished a research trip to Meiktila, for a project in listening to people discuss their concerns and hopes for the future. Over the previous months we had been having similar conversations in five other regions across Myanmar. Now we sat at a rest stop along the road back to Yangon.
“Remember this morning,” I said. “I have some kind of feeling. But it might be my imagination because I already know a little about the history of this place.” In March 2013 the town, south of Mandalay, was the scene of deadly riots involving 1,000 people and the killing of 44, including 20 Muslim children massacred at school. In addition more than 10,000 people were displaced and 800 buildings were razed.
We had been sitting in a teashop in central Meiktila, watching a street nearly choked to a stop with standing men and motorbikes. It looked like people gathering for something, but the pace was languid; the street was crowded but did not have the urgency of a crowd.
It gave me shivers nonetheless, and I had remarked upon it to my colleague. She said she noticed it too. We had looked out at the motorbikes, shiny and clean, noteworthy in the dust of a Myanmar summer. The men were selling and buying the bikes; I had laughed at myself for recollecting the worst.
Still, I had a strong feeling but I wasn’t sure how to articulate it. Meiktila felt like a place closed off, a grim kind of siege.
“Did you notice how it was hard to find help scheduling with Buddhists, in their own community?” my colleague said. We had been shuttling between friends helping us with our research. “I think they were all being careful about who they asked, because if they approached the wrong person to talk with us they can’t be sure about what problem they could have later. There is some group with strong feelings, and it seemed like everyone is being careful.”
We spent the next while reflecting on what people had said to us, and what it had been like to get those conversations started.
“Take [–] for example,” my colleague said. “He helped us, but he said he is working on other issues now more than interfaith peace. Before we came, I called [–] who helped me last time, but he didn’t answer my call. And [–], [–], and [–] have moved to other places. None of them ever complain about any difficulties, but we can feel how hard it must be.
“And remember the guy we spoke with at lunchtime today, that used to work on interfaith peace issues?” I did. He had told us about how he had shifted to working on other social issues now, because he had been worried about risks for his family.
“But do you remember what the one we talked to at lunchtime told us about the sayadaw? It finally gave me the clue to understand what was happening.”
“You mean how he said the sayadaw is being called a ‘kalar strengthening person’?” I asked. The man at lunchtime had been illustrating a point about tensions by telling us of a Buddhist leader who had been ostracised as a Muslim sympathiser.
My colleague had interviewed that sayadaw during previous research, and he had told her how he had been among those who shared information about attacks instigated by Muslims, right before the violence during March 2013. But, he had told her, later he learned that the information he had shared was untrue. He felt he had contributed to the violence, though it was not his intention, and he had said he would not share such information in the future.
When my colleague had suggested we call that sayadaw again, a moment later our friends had, for the first time, suggested an appointment with another Buddhist resident of the town. “I think they wanted to protect him, because he already has so many problems,” she said. “That’s what I realised when the one at lunchtime said people are calling the sayadaw a ‘kalar strengthening person’.”
We continued reflecting on what we had heard in Meiktila. A Buddhist man had told us two stories about recent instances when he thought more violence might be imminent. He had been dismissive of the police, in general and in each of his stories, for inadequately responding. He had been able to prevent the situations from worsening, he said, but he was also careful to say he couldn’t have done so in March 2013.
“I was away and when I came back, four Muslim people were already killed near my house,” he said. “I had to throw stones at those bodies the whole night to keep dogs from eating them.” He told us he didn’t want to see any more killing, but that if something came to similar scale again and he tried to intervene he would probably be killed, too.
“I feel more worried about the situation here than I did the last time I came,” my colleague said.
We finished our meal and got up from the table in the curry hall.
In Mandalay last month, a young interfaith peace activist was arrested. Media accounts said he had been charged under the Unlawful Associations Act, for associating with an armed organisation. The evidence against him: photos on Facebook, posing with soldiers and a rifle during an exchange visit to a conflict area.
A solidarity page opened for him on Facebook has been posting photos of other prominent religious leaders, activists, and journalists in similar poses. “He is an activist as well but holding a gun is no problem because he is not an interfaith peace activists and top of that he is not a Muslim,” one such photo is captioned.
The photo of the young activist was two years old at the time of his arrest. “He is only now having action taken against him because recently members of Mabatha have been targeting him and spreading rumours that he has connections with armed groups,” said a statement by the Burmese Muslim Association. Of the news outlets that covered the story, two of four noted that he had been the subject of attacks and harassment online. The articles made it sound like bullying.
But attacks and harassment take many forms. In his case, it has been the regular sharing of a handful of posts, consisting of screenshots and photos along with insults, dehumanising jokes, and accusations that he is corrupting Buddhists and a member of a Muslim terrorist organisation. The posts have targeted him but they have been popular across Facebook in Myanmar; the example image at the top of this essay had been shared 8,804 times when the screen shot was taken. Similar photos appeared in my newsfeed after his arrest, of the activist and other young members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) standing next to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
International observers continue to pillory Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for failing to acknowledge Rohingya identity claims or speak out against anti-Muslim violence. She is variously branded a canny politician, coward, or bigoted Islamaphobe. In Myanmar meanwhile she is attacked for an opposite failure: a vote for her NLD is a vote against Buddhism, a vote for an Islamic Myanmar, say flyers and Facebook posts like the one with the recently arrested interfaith peace activist.
These attacks are part of a narrative of existential threat that is being mobilised in Myanmar, twinned with a sense of virtuous self-defence: Buddhism is vulnerable and needing protection lest Islam supplant it as the majority religion in Myanmar. Failing to demonstrate sufficient regard for the protection of Buddhism is thus to enter the realm of traitorous betrayal.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is accused of betrayal, but such pressure isn’t limited to high profile politicians. In this, mobile phones and social media operate as powerful tools, and they are being used for harassment, mechanisms for delivering threats or coordinating attacks.
Such attacks are becoming increasingly common, on politicians, social activists, local government authorities. Platforms such as Facebook provide a space for attacks that exceed the spatial bounds of any given place.
Over the last two weeks, my Facebook newsfeed has been swamped by photos of Myanmar under water: the tops of trees and peaks of thatched roofs and pagodas, the rest submerged; friends carrying sacks of rice; donations organised in my neighbourhood; political cartoons criticising ineffectual government response. Myanmar is facing worse flooding than it has in decades.
Over one million people in all but two of Myanmar’s states and regions have been affected. More than one million acres of paddy land have been destroyed, nearly 1,400 schools have been closed.
The swift, brave, and generous response of individuals, communities, and local civil society has been central to emergency response. That is not surprising: when Cyclone Nargis devastated lower Myanmar in 2008, it was local responses that have been lauded and credited with saving hundreds of thousands of lives and quickening recovery.
In 2008, less than five per cent of the population had mobile phones or Internet access; the response then was awe inspiring, and decidedly offline. The current response has also been awe inspiring, but in its online imprint it has been different.
Crowdfunding campaigns on a variety of websites have raised tens of thousands of dollars, connecting people in Myanmar with supporters all over the world. Posts on Facebook by people inside and outside Myanmar have been used to solicit and coordinate donations.
Dozens of Facebook groups with thousands of followers have been formed for the same reasons. Facebook itself has gotten involved, adding a banner across the top of its platform encouraging users in Thailand, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand to make donations, with 100 per cent of proceeds going to flood response by Save the Children International.
Such uses of social media have helped people connect, coordinate, and mobilise in ways that they could not before. The Nargis response reminds us that people in Myanmar would have found other ways to do so without social media, too. But platforms such as Facebook are also providing space for discussions that exceed any individual donation drive, and in that, something is emerging that could not in 2008.
Millions of posts on similar topics aggregate into national conversations that help to form new communities. “Most people did not go out of the house to ask for donations,” a volunteer told the Myanmar Times, describing the way people responded to Cyclone Nargis far away to the north in Shan State. “We did not have so many volunteer groups at that time. This year, there are a lot of volunteers who are coming out to help people. Of course, social media is the main part.”
The aggregate of such conversations can also exert a powerful pressure. New communities once formed can operate to mark those defined outside or expel those who transgress. In the most famous recent case, outcry at the apparent carelessness of a military helicopter dropping emergency supplies into a flooded paddy field prompted an apology from the military and an explanation by the pilot.
During the hours after a violent crackdown on peaceful student demonstrators back in March, it was exhilarating to watch as Facebook users put names to the anonymous wage-labour-thugs in photos of the crackdown. The photos led to apologies from some of the men and, eventually, an exposé on the way they had been recruited by state authorities.
Exhilaration is not the only feeling that the operation of such an online community can generate. Last year, a Buddhist friend’s father was the target of an online shaming campaign, for providing emergency relief to Muslims in Rakhine State. The father didn’t have a Facebook account, but his photo circulated nonetheless.
It was a distressing experience for him and I remember the worry his daughter had expressed. He was the target. And he was an object lesson, for everyone, anyone providing similar support to Muslims in Myanmar. A community defined, and traitors cast out.
Almost exactly two years after the riots in Meiktila, the man we spoke with during a lunchtime in April told us he had stopped working for peace because he feared for his family. In the settled dust of a massacre, the feeling in Meiktila was palpable and worrying. Today that dust is mud. And tomorrow?
Matt Schissler co-founded the Myanmar Media and Society (M.MAS) Research Project, a partnership between St Antony’s College, Oxford University and the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization. Portions of this essay are based on notes taken during research later published as “Threat and virtuous defence: Listening to narratives of religious conflict in six Myanmar cities,” M.MAS Working Paper 1:1, St Antony’s College, Oxford, 20 July.
 Physicians for Human Rights, “Massacre in Central Burma: Muslim Students Terrorized and Killed in Meiktila,” May 2013, http://physiciansforhumanrights.org/library/reports/meiktila-report-may-2013.html; Human Rights Watch, “Burma: Satellite Images Detail Destruction in Meiktila” (Human Rights Watch, April 1, 2013), http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/04/01/burma-satellite-images-detail-destruction-meiktila.
 ‘Kalar’ is a Burmese language term used to reference people of South Asian appearance, though it is now also used to reference Muslims who do not appear South Asian. Many feel that it is a pejorative term, others do not; lengthily debates about this have taken place on earlier New Mandala postings. In this case, whether or not the term ‘kala’ is intrinsically pejorative is beside the point: ‘Kala strengthening person’ is meant as a grave indictment.
 Solidarity page here: <https://www.facebook.com/pages/Free-Zaw-Zaw-Latt/762867777158816> accessed 23 July 2015
 “Ma Ba Tha” is the Burmese language acronym for the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, an increasingly powerful Buddhist nationalist organization formed in 2013.
 “An Interfaith and Peace Activist Has Been Arrested” (Burmese Muslim Association, 17 July, 2015), http://www.b-m-a.org.uk/eng/press-release-n-report/48-year-2015/27-an-interfaith-and-peace-activist-has-been-arrested.html
 Aung Naing Soe, “Muslim Interfaith Activist Detained over Association with ‘blacklisted Organization’,” Coconuts Yangon, July 16, 2015, http://yangon.coconuts.co/2015/07/16/muslim-interfaith-activist-detained-over-association-blacklisted-organization; Joshua Carroll, “Interfaith Activist Arrested after Posting Pic with Assault Rifle,” Democratic Voice of Burma, July 16, 2015, https://www.dvb.no/news/interfaith-activist-arrested-after-posting-pic-with-assault-rifle-burma-myanmar/54847.
 “Interfaith Peace Activist Arrested: BMA,” Mizzima, July 18, 2015, http://mizzima.com/news-domestic/interfaith-peace-activist-arrested-bma; Zarni Mann, “Interfaith Activist Detained for Unlawful Association,” The Irrawaddy, July 17, 2015, http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/interfaith-activist-detained-for-unlawful-association.html.
 See for example, Salai Thant Zin, “NLD Claims Ma Ba Tha Defamation at Charity Shindig,” The Irrawaddy, 24 July, 2015, http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/nld-accuses-ma-ba-tha-of-defamation-at-charity-shindig.html.
 For a detailed analysis of this narrative and its construction across Myanmar, see Matt Schissler, Matthew J Walton, and Phyu Phyu Thi, “Threat and Virtuous Defence: Listening to Narratives of Religious Conflict in Six Myanmar Cities,” M.MAS Working Paper (St Antony’s College, Oxford University, July 2015).
 Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is regularly framed as ‘pro-Muslim,’ but other politicians are also subject to attack. In May 2015, for example, a former member of her National League for Democracy party was sentenced to two years for ‘insulting’ religion during a speech in which he criticised hate speech by Buddhist leaders. See, Naw Noreen, “Htin Lin Oo Sentenced to Two Years with Labour,” Democratic Voice of Burma, June 2, 2015, http://www.dvb.no/news/htin-lin-oo-sentenced-to-two-years-with-labour-burma-myanmar/51679.
 A post circulating on social media during the Meiktila riots in March 2013, for example, provided instructions for destroying the cameras of journalists attempting to cover the violence. For a thorough discussion of such obstacles, see, Sean Gleeson, “For Burma’s Journalists, a Bumpy Road to ‘Discipline-Flourishing Democracy’,” The Irrawaddy, 17 June, 2015, http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/for-burmas-journalists-a-bumpy-road-to-discipline-flourishing-democracy.html.
 For example, after 150 civil society organizations signed a petition opposing a package of ‘race and religion protection’ laws proposed by Ma Ba Tha, they were branded traitors by 969 and Ma Ba Tha leaders and subject to harassment, including death threats. See, Yen Snaing, “Myanmar Activists Face Threats After Opposing Interfaith Marriage Bill,” The Irrawaddy, 4 June, 2014, http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/activists-face-violent-threats-opposing-interfaith-marriage-bill.html.
 During the research period, for example, a 969-affiliated Facebook account posted the photograph and phone number of a local ward authority who had refused 969 monks permission to hold a public sermon. Screenshot on file with the author.
 “Burma Floods: Over 1 Million People Affected, Nearly 100 Dead,” The Irrawaddy, 10 August, 2015, http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/burma-floods-over-1-million-people-affected-nearly-100-dead.html.
 Kyaw Hsu Mon, “Rice Federation: More Than One Million Acres of Paddy Fields Destroyed by Floods,” The Irrawaddy, August 10, 2015, http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/rice-federation-more-than-1-million-acres-of-paddy-fields-destroyed-by-floods.html.
 San Yamin Aung, “Floods Shutter Nearly 1,400 Schools Across Myanmar,” The Irrawaddy, 4 August, 2015, http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/floods-shutter-nearly-1400-schools-across-burma.html.
 Ashley South et al., “Myanmar – Surviving the Storm: Self-protection and Survival in the Delta” (Local 2 Global Protection Project, October 2011), http://www.ashleysouth.co.uk/files/L2GP_Myanmar_Nargis_study.pdf.
 Remarking on this dynamic, see Chit Win, “Facebook and Myanmar’s Two Floods,” New Mandala, 6 August, 2015, http://www.newmandala.org/2015/08/06/facebook-and-myanmars-two-floods/; Mong Palatino, “How Social Media Moved People to Act in Flood-Ravaged Myanmar,” Global Voices, 7 August, 2015, https://globalvoicesonline.org/2015/08/07/how-social-media-moved-people-to-act-in-flood-ravaged-myanmar/; RJ Vogt, “Social Media Drives Flood Donations,” The Myanmar Times, 7 August, 2015, http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/national-news/15877-social-media-drives-flood-donations.html.
 “Online Volunteers of Disasters Recovery for Myanmar (OVDRM),” for example, has 7,817 followers. See, https://www.facebook.com/OVDR4MM?fref=nf accessed 12 August 2015. A young government official who became famous for posting updates about the status of a nearly breached dam has 25,262 followers. See, https://www.facebook.com/soeminlwinu?fref=photo accessed 12 August 2015.
 Khin Su Wai, “Officials Use Social Media to Fight Flood Rumours,” The Myan, 31 July, 2015, http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/national-news/15769-officials-use-social-media-to-fight-flood-rumours.html.
 Vogt, “Social Media Drives Flood Donations.”
 “Burma Army Apologizes for Damaged Flood Relief Items,” The Irrawaddy, accessed 10 August, 2015, http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/military-apologizes-for-damaged-flood-relief-items.html.
 Matt Schissler, “Discipline and Duty,” New Mandala, 10 March, 2015, http://www.newmandala.org/2015/03/10/discipline-and-duty/.
 Swe Win, “Return of Myanmar’s State Thugs Raises Fears over Election Violence,” Myanmar Now, 3 August, 2015, http://www.myanmar-now.org/news/i/?id=75e23296-f9b8-4ba5-a552-0cea0778dd60.
 Screenshot on file with the author.