A video posted to Facebook earlier this month shows Buddhist officers from the Myanmar Police Force beating two Muslim detainees. Since an October 2016 attack on a police station by purported Islamist rebels, the Myanmar Army has targeted Muslim civilians by bombing villages, burning homes, expelling internally displaced people, immolating children, massacring men, and raping women. The video challenged the Myanmar government’s claim that such persecution was just a safety measure.
For the targeted civilians, the internet has come to mean life or death. Internet activists often champion the idea that the World Wide Web can catalyze democratic change. And the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority community in Myanmar (the Southeast Asian country also called Burma) have taken this message to heart. They hope that the internet can spread word of their plight, but censorship, fake news websites, and propaganda make it hard to convey the right message.
Most of the world’s one-to-two million Rohingya, Myanmar’s largest Muslim community, live on the country’s western coast in Rakhine State. They live alongside the people who inspired its name: the Rakhine are Buddhists like the majority of Myanmarese, and they consider the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. But the Rohingya argue that their families have lived in the lands that compose Rakhine State since the 1800s, tracing their ancestry to Arab explorers.
Rohingya children play in Thet Key Pyin Camp. Image: Austin Bodetti
The government, ruled by the military till 2011, has sided with the Rakhine and treated the Rohingya as non-citizens for decades. The tension came to a head in June 2012, when several Rohingya raped a Rakhine woman and sparked riots in Sittwe, the state’s capital. The riots killed dozens of both Rakhine and Rohingya, who burned down homes and shops. The Rohingya allege that the government helped the Rakhine destroy their property.
Meanwhile, a parallel battle occurred over the internet. Rohingya activists used online forums to claim that Rakhine rioters had murdered thousands of their compatriots. In fact, the number was closer to several dozen. Fake pictures of anti-Rohingya violence spread over Facebook and Twitter.
On the other side, propaganda from the Rakhine and their backers in the Myanmar government carried more immediate consequences. State-owned media supports the narrative that the Rohingya—whom it calls “Bengalis,” i.e. a people from Bangladesh or India—are illegal immigrants harassing the Rakhine and stealing their land. This message proved disturbing because the Myanmar government has the authority and power to deport the Rohingya or force them into concentration camps, as it has done in the past.
Rohingya have relied on the internet after the Myanmar government restricted them to concentration camps.
After the 2012 violence, Facebook commenters got ugly. “It’s not even enough that he’s dead,” said one while another responded, “I don’t know if I should be happy or sad because I don’t know what nationality she is.” Hacker groups linked to the Myanmar Armed Forces have called themselves “government lobbyists” and “nationalists,” and refer to the Rohingya as “jihadi Muslims” that are “destroying the religion and nation.”
Some Rohingya have relied on the internet after the Myanmar government restricted them to concentration camps following the 2012 conflicts. “The internet is so important for the Rohingya because we can share our feelings, our situation, and everything that is going on in the camps,” Saed al-Arakani, a thirty-one-year-old Rohingya activist, told me at Thet Key Pyin Camp, a makeshift settlement on the outskirts of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State.
Al-Arakani works as a fixer and interpreter for foreign journalists, arranging interviews and meetings inside the camps, a patchwork of dirt roads and shacks built over a paddy field. He has coordinated with correspondents from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal over social media. Using just a smartphone, he helps spread information about the humanitarian crises in the camps through international news media and can make over $100 a day, a significant amount in the cash-strapped country.
A Rohingya boy stands in front of hut 46, constructed by the Myanmar government and aid agencies after the 2012 violence. Image: Austin Bodetti
But smartphones still come at a premium. For the past two years, the state-owned telephone company Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications has been working with the likes of Ooredoo from Qatar and Telenor Group from Norway to expand the country’s telecommunications infrastructure. SIM cards that once went for $1,500 now cost $1.50. But the minimum wage is still $2.80 a day. And the lack of access to mobile services and networks makes it hard to communicate and organize.
For al-Arakani, these challenges make it difficult to determine what information about his own community is legitimate, so he relies on a social network of informants throughout the camps. He said he mostly uses encrypted messaging platforms such as Viber and WhatsApp. “I don’t get information on political developments with the national government through the internet because it is difficult to get real information,” he said.
Despite recent advances in telecommunications, accessing the internet remains difficult for the Rohingya. “In rural areas, mobile networks are still very poor and it is very difficult to access the internet and even use apps on mobile phones outside towns,” said Chris Lewa, a Thailand-based activist with the Arakan Project, an NGO documenting abuses against the Rohingya.
"It is difficult to get real information."
That communication becomes particularly important as the Rohingya community moves across the globe. Hoping to escape persecution at the hands of the Myanmar government, almost a million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and as far west as Saudi Arabia.
While talking within the community is difficult, getting the message of their threatened families to a wider audience is even harder. Omar Siddique Zubair, a Rohingya born in Bangladesh but living in Saudi Arabia, founded Rohingya Television to provide an anti-government source of information for his compatriots in Myanmar and the rest of Southeast Asia who, like al-Arakani, distrust state media. Rohingya expatriates across Asia can host alternative media accessible in Rakhine State but free from the Myanmar government’s censorship.
Rohingya TV only broadcasts in Rohingya and Burmese, Myanmar’s official language, but Zubair hopes for it to reach beyond this audience: “Rohingya TV is a broadcasting program for the Rohingya community across the world, to let it be known that the Rohingya minority is the most persecuted in the world according to UN reports and to let the international community know how the Rohingya are confronting restrictions such as education, movement, and social limitations.”
A Rohingya boy wears a shirt bearing the logo of the United Arab Emirates' flag carrier. Image: Austin Bodetti
Most Rohingya whom I interviewed cited Rohingya Blogger and Rohingya Vision as their preferred sources of information. Both websites have stringers across Myanmar and the Rohingya diaspora, which they use to report instances of anti-Rohingya violence committed by the Myanmar Army and the Myanmar Police Force. RVision offers articles in Arabic, Burmese, and English, and its website allows readers to show their support with bitcoin donations. Their pro-Rohingya spin counters the anti-Rohingya coverage of Myanmar’s state media.
Rohingya Blogger has over thirty thousand likes on Facebook, and Rohingya TV and RVision each have over forty thousand, yet the gap between educated activists such as al-Arakani and Zubair and the wider population of up to two million brings their reach into question. According to Upstream Journal, the Rohingya have an illiteracy rate of 80 percent with 60 percent of children never enrolled in school. So, even if the whole Rohingya population could access RVision, less than a quarter could read it.
“I’m able to stay in contact with some Rohingya who fled the camp through the internet,” al-Arakani explained, “but not with all who fled and not everyday—just often because sometimes the network doesn’t work well.” As I discovered, cellphone service in even Sittwe’s city center can be spotty, allowing for only sporadic emails. For whatever reason, I got a better signal in the camps.
The internet’s growth in Myanmar has accompanied democratic free-speech reforms.
The spread of the internet has also exposed the Rohingya to more hate speech as enemies put freedom of the press to use. A Facebook page claims to detail “how illegal Chinese and Bangladeshi immigrants (Rohingya) flooded Myanmar” to occupy the country’s land. “If anyone refused to go along with this order then he must be persecuted according to law and finally deported to the country of its origin,” reads one line arguing that “immigrants” must keep Nazi-style cards identifying them as foreigners.
The internet’s growth in Myanmar has accompanied democratic free-speech reforms in the last six years that, like the internet, have empowered not only the Rohingya but also their enemies. Militant Buddhists are now free to vilify the Rohingya as illegal immigrants and Islamic terrorists on social media and other platforms.
“Ironically, speech and censorship reforms since the 2011 democratic elections have worsened the situation, and public opinion is loudly swayed against the Rohingya,” observed the Religious Literacy Project at the Harvard Divinity School. “Anti-Rohingya monks and others also claim that radical Islamists among the Rohingya are a danger to the Burmese state.”
Rohingya families gather for a meeting. Image: Global Panorama/Flickr
Muslim extremists from Indonesia to East Africa have expressed sympathy for the Rohingya online, compromising the peaceful tone of the minority’s cause and alerting global Islamophobes. The majority of Rohingya believe that nonviolent resistance is the best weapon for self-defense against the Myanmarese government and the Rakhine. However, their opponents are using reports of links to extremists to demonize the Rohingya and jeopardize their international support.
“Misinformation and unverified rumours are also spreading through these means,” Lewa, the activist in Thailand, told me.
Even so, the sophistication of the Rohingya’s outreach is working in their favor. Under a subsection titled “International News,” RVision features English articles on conflicts in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, and others examine events in Israel and at the UN. The website seems to be mimicking an international news agency, strengthening its authority and legitimacy abroad and online.
Rohingya activists will have to confront more challenges as they contend with Buddhist and Islamic extremists, but their greatest success has come from outreach to the international community.
“Everyone knows nowadays about the Rohingya genocide of 2012,” Akhtar Ismail, a Rohingya in Malaysia, told Motherboard over Facebook Messenger. “That’s because of the internet.”
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