In early March, Yangon—the former capital of Myanmar (Burma)—played host to a conference held by the East-West Center, called “Challenges of a Free Press.” The event (which I attended) featured speakers from around the world, but was more notable for its local speakers, including Aung San Suu Kyi and Nay Phone Latt, a blogger who spent four years as a political prisoner before being released under a widespread presidential amnesty in 2012. In a country where the Internet was heavily censored for many years, online freedom was discussed with surprising openness, although concerns about hate speech on platforms like Facebook were raised repeatedly.
This past week, as violence escalated in Mandalay, authorities blocked Facebook to coincide with a curfew imposed on the city. While leaders in the country, including Suu Kyi, have spoken of the responsibility of journalists in reporting the truth (which some have interpreted as an early call for online censorship), journalist Aung Zaw, writing for the Burmese publication, The Irrawaddy, says “…don’t expect the government to take action against the hatemongers—it isn’t going to happen.” Instead of dealing with the calls for violence, it seems, they’ve taken the easy way out, by imposing censorship.
In his piece, Aung Zaw cautions against Western governments putting too positive a spin on Myanmar’s “reforms” while the country’s “dream of democracy looks increasingly like it is turning into a carefully orchestrated nightmare.” Indeed, as the violence escalates, remaining vigilant about increased censorship is imperative. The recent opening of the Internet may allow hate speech to spread more quickly, but it has also enabled innovation, access to information, and growth of a small technology sector. So while the intent behind censoring Facebook is to stem the tide of hateful speech, Myanmar’s history suggests that hate speech might merely be the first thing to go.