BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A group of Myanmar activists, including former political prisoners, are launching a campaign on Friday to tackle the ‘hate speech’ against Muslims that has engulfed social media and spread into Burmese society.
Panzagar, literally “flower speech”, is a movement set up by Nay Phone Latt, a blogger and executive director of Myanmar ICT For Development Organization (MIDO) who spent nearly four years in jail for writing about the monks’ protests in 2007 that ended in a bloody crackdown.
“During the military regime, we fought for freedom of expression and now we can say that we have freedom of expression to some extent,” but with free speech comes hate speech, Nay Phone Latt told Thomson Reuters Foundation via e-mail.
“Some of the hate speech ... becomes dangerous for society and the country. One word can destroy the whole country,” he wrote.
“I believe that not only the tight restrictions and unfair laws but also hate speech, dangerous speech and irresponsible speech challenge and threaten freedom of expression,” he added.
After half a century of brutal military rule, a quasi-civilian government took office in Myanmar in March 2011 and introduced democratic reforms that have won near-universal praise.
Yet the country has been grappling with hate speech since religious conflict erupted in June 2012, killing at least 240 people and displacing more than 140,000, mostly Muslims.
Vitriolic and inflammatory comments about Muslims, who make up a small fraction of the population, have become common on blogs, web forums and Facebook pages.
Internet access is limited in Myanmar - some estimates say only 0.2 percent of the population is online - but young people, as well as a large Burmese diaspora worldwide, are increasingly using social media to share news and opinions.
Buddhist nationalists and some monks, driven by fear that Muslims will take over Myanmar, have urged people to boycott Muslim-owned businesses and successfully lobbied the government to draft controversial laws, including one that would force Buddhist women wanting to marry non-Buddhist men to get permission from their parents and local government officials. No such restrictions are planned for Buddhist men.
Famous comedian Zarganar, who was sentenced to 59 years in prison in 2008 after criticising the junta for its slow response to the humanitarian crisis created by Cyclone Nargis, is a supporter of the Panzagar movement, whose slogan is “Let’s watch what we say so that hate between mankind does not proliferate”.
Journalist and documentary film maker Mon Mon Myat made a similar appeal to fellow journalists at a media conference organised by the Hawaii-based East West Centre last month.