Extreme sentiments fueled by social media highlight external, internal disconnect
Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalists shout slogans against the government during a protest in Yangon on Aug. 3, for neglecting the national interest by failing to hold off Muslim insurgency. © AP
The United Nations Security Council in recent weeks has placed new focus on Myanmar through discussions about violence in the country’s western Rakhine state, allegations of “ethnic cleansing” and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring Bangladesh.
Missing though was the bigger picture in Myanmar, beyond Rakhine, which will not only shape future options for refugee return, but also regional stability, and any possibility of a better life for all the country’s peoples.
Aside from Rakhine, there are at least another half million internally displaced persons, around 20 ethnic-based armed groups (the largest with more than 20,000 soldiers), hundreds of militias in the rest of the country and no real peace in sight. In addition, the economy is far from healthy, with the stability of the banking sector in question, investor confidence in decline, and prospects for millions of the poorest people in Asia in the balance. Meanwhile, Beijing is offering major infrastructure projects that would tie the country more closely with China’s interior provinces and essentially make Myanmar China’s bridge to the Indian Ocean.
The current constitution gives the armed forces crucial powers over security while allowing the elected civilian government free reign over economic issues and foreign relations. It has been a tense cohabitation and the success of the next elections in 2020 and further democratic reforms are far from guaranteed.
For Myanmar’s people, this is a time of anxiety. Millions are worried that the fast pace of change will leave them and their families destitute and without opportunity. These same millions are now on the internet. Over the past five years the proportion of people with mobile phones has gone from a few percent to more than 70%. A population that still largely lacks access to electricity, clean water or health care is now on Facebook, widely regarded as Myanmar’s only social media platform.
New dark currents
In this time of national anxiety, a neo-nationalism is taking shape, enabled by social media and fueled both by the unfolding crisis in Rakhine state and a sense that the outside world, in particular the U.N. and the West, are siding with Myanmar’s mortal enemies.
While world opinion is focused on the humanitarian tragedy along the border with Bangladesh and allegations of horrific human rights abuses mainly against the minority Rohingya, the view inside the country is not only different but diametrically opposite.
In Myanmar the overwhelming focus among not only by the government but also the general public has been on the threat from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and fears of Islamic extremism. Since ARSA’s attacks on Aug. 25, Myanmar social media has been brimming with reports of alleged ARSA atrocities against Buddhist and Hindu minorities, tens of thousands of whom have fled south away from the country’s Muslim majority areas.
Rohingya people escape from Myanmar to Teknaf, Bangladesh, on Sept. 8 after violence erupted in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. © Sipa/AP Images
In late September, both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group called for action in Myanmar, heightening fears of impending terrorist attacks in Yangon or Mandalay. Eyewitness accounts from refugees are often dismissed as fabrications, and what is seen from outside as a Rohingya human rights tragedy is portrayed within Myanmar — especially by Rakhine Buddhists — as a foreign invasion by illegal immigrants turned terrorists.