Airplane mode

Few people actively use Twitter in Myanmar. Fewer had heard of Mr Jack Dorsey, one of the Silicon Valley social media company’s founders and its CEO – that is, until a December 8 Twitter thread by the American tech billionaire about his recent birthday trip to Myanmar.

THE TWEET thread’s contents were widely shared in Myanmar in Facebook posts that thanked him for his kind words about the country and its people. They also cast the online backlash against Dorsey, for failing to mention human rights abuses, as further proof of the world’s narrow view of Myanmar.

“Myanmar is an absolutely beautiful country. The people are full of joy and the food is amazing,” Dorsey wrote in the thread that otherwise focused on the rigours of Vipassana meditation. The austere Buddhist discipline is practised from Mandalay to Texas, thanks to its revival during the Bamar Konbaung dynasty in the 18th century.

It was an opportunity to practise Vipassana “in its original form” that drew Dorsey to visit. The trip, he clarified in a December 11 thread written in response to the criticism, was taken “with a singular objective of working on myself”. During 10 days of silent meditation in Pyin Oo Lwin – the highland town that hosts the Defence Services Academy where the military elite is trained – he turned his Apple Watch to Airplane mode, he wrote.

The response on Twitter to Dorsey’s original tweets was quick and vehement, and soon spilled over into international media. His December 8 thread made no mention of civil war, the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities or the jailing of journalists, let alone the prominent role that social media has played in fanning hatred and discrediting news reports of atrocities.

For extolling Myanmar’s virtues and dwelling on his personal fulfilment while ignoring glaring abuses, Dorsey was derided as callous, narcissistic and tone-deaf.  His global profile grants him a platform that could have been used to champion efforts towards accountability, and he chose not to use it. His defence, that this was a personal trip, begs the question of why he chose to share his experiences with his more than four million Twitter followers, and promote Myanmar as a destination.

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Yet, the online backlash in Myanmar against the international backlash was equally impassioned. Even Myanmar social media users known to sympathise with the Rohingya and other persecuted communities, and who hold nationalist narratives in contempt, rushed to Dorsey’s defence. The criticism of Dorsey was widely taken as an attack on the idea that there is anything worth celebrating in Myanmar in light of the Rohingya crisis.

Many in Myanmar feel their country is being unfairly singled out. Why, some ask, would a Western celebrity be able to gush publicly about Thailand’s beauty without mentioning its military junta, or enthuse about Vietnam without highlighting the considerably narrower civic and political freedoms compared to Myanmar.

It is true that many of Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbours have been able to combine authoritarianism with international acceptance, but the defensive reactions in Myanmar to the Dorsey tweet scandal were frequently packaged with familiar denials of the sheer scale of the violence, suffering and displacement that have taken place in Rakhine. This is a truly regional crisis, which the world’s refugee and humanitarian relief systems are struggling to alleviate.

Between Myanmar and the world, a basic consensus on whom or what is to blame remains elusive. Domestically, there has been no revision of the official version of events – premised on blanket denials – even as evidence of atrocities has piled up. The contrasting responses to Dorsey’s tweets were a rude reminder of this.

Yet, Dorsey’s greatest sin of omission has been overshadowed. After Dorsey signalled his arrival with a November 16 tweet reading, “Hello Myanmar Burma”, a coalition of Myanmar-based civic groups working to tackle rampant online hate speech – which had earlier highlighted Facebook’s neglect in policing the phenomenon – emailed Twitter public policy officers and sent Dorsey a private Twitter message to request a discussion with the Twitter CEO.

No response came from Dorsey, and Twitter staff made no apparent effort to arrange a meeting with him. The man was not to be disturbed from his meditation.

Perhaps Dorsey should have switched off Airplane mode.

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