Virtual Peacebuilding in Myanmar
by Sacha Cameron
July 16, 2020

Often the site of political activism and communal organization, social media is a growing force in peacebuilding practice. However, such media platforms can also be used to incite violence and spread disinformation, as seen in the genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Organized movements and violent Nationalist /groups, such as Ma Ba Tha, have been and continue to utilize social media to disseminate propaganda and inflammatory posts, heightening tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya. 

Over the past few years, peacebuilding organizations and local activists have responded by enacting online peacebuilding initiatives. However, these efforts have not fully capitalized on the power of social media and the promise it holds as a positive force for interfaith work. Thus, to curb the spread of violence and extremism online, peacebuilding organizations must increase their capacities on social media through better coordination, collaboration with religious leaders on online campaigns, and the promotion of social media and internet literacy.

Studies have determined that there are distinct links between exposure to extremist content online and political violence, radical behaviors, and radical attitudes. In Myanmar, many violent incidents between Muslims and Buddhists were preceded by internet hate speech and rumors. Spreading counter-narratives through coordinated campaigns and improving social media literacy could combat radicalization at one of its sources and prevent the intensification of violent conflict.

While the Buddhist Nationalist presence online is often seen as “strong” and “active,” Myanmar’s peacebuilding initiatives fail to employ cohesive social media strategies and rarely produce viral content. Campaigns must improve their coordination and model existing formats of viral media content, thus presenting a unified message and organized dissemination strategy. One successful example includes the release of a virtual sticker for the spread of “flower speech” as opposed to hate speech. Utilizing a Burmese symbol for peace, the flower, the viral campaign urged individuals to use social media to publicly voice their support for peaceful coexistence. The image of a person with a flower in their mouth turned into an internet trend, and the sticker garnered 2.7 million downloads in just over a year.  

Direct participation of religious leaders may also improve the success of online initiatives as this would provide alternative religious leadership to prominent extremists. In Myanmar’s highly Buddhist society, many look to monks for leadership and guidance in daily life. Though some monks have been participating in interfaith peacebuilding online, many more either stand in opposition to the peacebuilding movement or are afraid of facing retaliation. By demonstrating support for interfaith cooperation through religious leaders, peacebuilding organizations can effectively establish a counter-narrative to extremist voices operating in the Buddhist Nationalist space. Monks’ participation in these campaigns would increase their credibility amongst a public with a vested interest in upholding Buddhist tradition.

Finally, more work needs to be done to increase social media literacy amongst the public. As Myanmar’s access to the internet has increased, much of the population is susceptible to believing false news and radical propaganda. Facebook remains the primary source for news and media in Myanmar, which has become so dominant throughout the country that it is nearly synonymous with the internet. Facebook, meanwhile, has complained of the challenges that prevent it from monitoring and policing hate speech and disinformation on its platform. By teaching internet users to carefully scrutinize online content and safely navigate digital spaces, peacebuilding organizations can decrease the impact of extremist propaganda and false reports.  

Ultimately, expanding the role of social media in peacebuilding efforts in Myanmar allows important counter-narratives to be shared throughout the states, particularly in those areas where in-person peacebuilding efforts  may not be possible. By promoting a unified message, directly involving religious leaders, and increasing public media literacy, peacebuilding organizations in Myanmar can combat the dominant violent narratives being promoted by anti-Muslim nationalists.

The views, thoughts, and opinions in this blog belong solely to the author and are not representative of an official position or endorsement by the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD).