RANGOON — Dismissing “conspiracy theories” that Burma’s government and military have fomented recent inter-religious violence, President Thein Sein’s spokesman pointed instead to how people spread information and stoke tensions via social media, saying that half of Burma’s 800,000 Facebook accounts use fake names.
“Some small criminal cases can become a religious riot because people can go on social media,” Ye Htut, who is also the deputy information minister, said at a US Embassy seminar on “Preventing Hate Speech in Myanmar: Divergent Voices in a New Democracy.”
Facebook, Ye Htut said, is increasingly a first source of news for many Burmese, with people preferring to read a four- or five-line update on the social media site rather than digesting a full newspaper story.
On Thursday, the Burmese government announced the winners of the country’s two new long-awaited mobile licenses by posting a notice on Ye Htut’s Facebook page.
Nonetheless, despite social media’s utility for news dissemination, it has its downsides, believes the Burmese government. “Hate speech has been moving toward social media,” Ye Htut added, saying this development has “allowed people to spread prejudice against each other.”
Ye Htut acknowledged, however, that the prevalence of online pseudonyms was partly a legacy of military rule, with people still wary of speaking freely online after decades of censorship and arrest for those who criticized the former military government.
And while he said the government and army wanted to solve conflict in Burma, he added—without naming names—that some politicians in the country were manipulating religious and ethnic strife for their own ends. “People are confused,” said the spokesman. “Is this a hate-speech issue or a political issue?”
“We have to know who is behind these conspiracy theories,” he said. “Who is instigating behind the scenes?”
With a new telecommunications regime likely to see Burma’s current 1.05 million Internet users increase significantly in the near future, Ye Htut said there was a growing need to balance free speech with what he termed “social responsibility.”
The government hopes to have 75 percent of the country’s population connected to a mobile network by 2015-16, and of these, Ye Htut projected that half would use their phones to go online.
“We do not want to go back to censorship,” he said, “but society must be able to control itself.”
The balance between allowing free speech and curbing excesses is a crucial issue in a democratizing Burma, said Hindu leader Aung Naing.
“Should there be a hate speech law or not?” he asked, cautioning that “if you shut their [the people of Burma] mouths, there will be no development here.”
But monk Ashin Dhammapiya said that in contemporary Burma, where old restrictions on freedom of expression have been dismantled, people now overstep the mark.
“They think they can say what they like,” he said. “People cannot differentiate between freedom of speech and human rights.”
Recommending self-regulation for media in Burma, where a new press code is under consideration, Ye Htut took a potshot at one of the world’s best-known media moguls, with an implicit message, perhaps, for Burma’s so-called “cronies,” or politically connected businessmen, who might want to use the country’s media to promote themselves.
“[Rupert] Murdoch uses his media to improve his business,” he said. “It shouldn’t be like that.”Show