Human rights and Myanmar's digital gender divide

Female activists preaching a message of tolerance online are finding that they too are becoming a target.


THE ARRIVAL of affordable Internet access in Myanmar has revealed – and possibly exacerbated – divisions within society around contentious issues. Where military censorship once kept voices in check, now everyone has the ability to speak out.

Human rights defenders have found themselves in new territory, broaching taboo topics online and defending those who are coming under sustained attack.

“I have been forced to ask myself, ‘Do I really want to be a humanitarian?’” said Ma Thin Thin Aung, a young Ta’ang activist.

She’s been exceptionally vocal in condemning hateful language on her Facebook feed, particularly in regard to the flight of refugees from Rakhine State.

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“We can’t draw conclusions about people from what they share but I’ve never seen so much hate speech online in my life,” she said.

She argues that sustained media coverage on Rakhine State and international criticism of State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has intensified nationalist sentiment and hateful comments online.

Ma Maynadi, a young activist who works as an ethnographer at Koe Koe Tech in Yangon, said there is still a reluctance to discuss human rights on Facebook “because not many people understand what they are”.

“Some people in Burma associate the term ‘human rights’ as an imperialist tool which is very sad when [they] should be respected and practised at every level,” she said.

On September 25, she addressed her friends and followers in a public post that called out the “hateful and racist” comments by “narrow-minded ultranationalists”.

But Maynadi also criticised what she described as the “mainstream media’s black and white approach” and called for more balanced reporting on politically charged topics such as the conflict in Rakhine State.

“In international media, all of Burma is labeled as racist. Perspective and context is missing as outlets demonise Burma as a whole. The news media uses divisive categories portraying majority versus minority,” she said.

Fact vs fiction

Internet access was largely the preserve of the elite until 2014, when foreign mobile operators Telenor and Ooredoo broke the monopoly of state-run Myanmar Post and Telecommunications.

In a short space of time, millions have gone from having no access to the Internet and independent media to being barraged by a constant stream of information on Facebook. Sorting fact from fiction is a challenge that many are ill equipped to navigate.

“We lived under a dictatorship for 70 years so of course, now that the country has opened up online spaces, it’s easy to brainwash especially with a lack of education and critical thinking skills,” Maynadi said. “We’ve had no exposure to outside influences.”

Thin Thin Aung noted that some of her friends on Facebook were taking sides on controversial issues even though they had little knowledge about the particular topic.

“My friends are sharing posts from [social media] with little context but the accounts they’re sharing from have a lot of followers,” she said. “This has the potential to influence people in the wrong way – especially when they’re so easy to convince.”

Women’s rights

There are many other human rights issues in Myanmar that have not generated the same headlines as Rakhine State but are still difficult to broach online.

Several women’s rights activists said they had been challenged when sharing information related to sexual and reproductive health education, for example.

Ma Zin Mar Phyo from the Chiang Mai-based Burmese Women’s Union said some men on her Facebook feed have a difficult time accepting dialogue on gender discourse.

“Men and women talk about gender equality differently,” she said. “They see us living in a cup. Men want to see us stay in the cup confined to domestic duties without being able to climb out and escape.”

The narrative on gender equality is highly contested; many government officials, legislators, academics and activists assert that women’s inequality is a myth. Many studies suggest the exact opposite, however. A detailed 2015 report from the Gender Equality Network, Raising the Curtain, examined how cultural and social practices in Myanmar have had different impacts on men and women throughout their lives.

Discussing women’s rights is still not culturally acceptable in some circumstances. Some – particularly older people – see it as challenging traditional norms.

Zin Mar Phyo said men often view women’s rights as separate to other fundamental rights.

“If women talk about human rights, men disagree with posts specifically related to gender and women’s rights.”

Daw Phyu Sin, formerly with women’s rights group Akhaya Women, said men often challenge posts calling for women to have access to equal opportunities.

“Most of the men on my Facebook feed disagree with women’s rights advancement but seem to agree on the topic of labor rights and basic citizen rights,” she said.

The women activists are unwavering in their positions on human rights. They’ve been the subject of personal attacks from people disagree with their platforms – even close friends and family.

Ma Thin Thin Aung noted that social media was also a powerful tool to educate and encourage discourse, and she hoped that in future it could become a force for social good.

“I share because I feel that I have a responsibility to – especially as a young, ethnic Shan woman impacted by conflict,” she said.

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