Rakhine clashes matched by social media war

Border police checking people fleeing from a conflict area at a checkpoint near Maungdaw township in Myanmar's Rakhine state on Monday. Rohingya Muslims are trying to escape the latest surge in violence between a shadowy militant group and the milita
Border police checking people fleeing from a conflict area at a checkpoint near Maungdaw township in Myanmar's Rakhine state on Monday. Rohingya Muslims are trying to escape the latest surge in violence between a shadowy militant group and the military.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE

Escalating rhetoric online may worsen already tense ties between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists

Over 100 people have been killed and thousands evacuated amid the most serious flare-up of violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state in recent months, as security forces battled an armed group proclaiming to fight on behalf of the beleaguered Rohingya Muslim minority.

The clashes are being mirrored on social media, raising concerns that the escalating rhetoric may inflame already tense inter-ethnic relations.

Since the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) attacked 30 police posts and an army base last week, the government has declared it a terrorist organisation.

The office of State Counsellor and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi also released a statement saying it was taking action against "financial supporters, contact persons and abettors in foreign countries, to terrorist groups such as extremist Bengali terrorists and Arsa". It also warned media groups against using the term "insurgents" to describe what it calls "extremist terrorists".

Facebook and Twitter posts by her office's information committee earlier this week ran pictures of buildings as well as Buddha statues that had been destroyed.

In a briefing to diplomats yesterday, Myanmar officials accused the militants of trying to create a "Muslim state in northern Myanmar".

"We have, as a country, as a sovereign nation, every right to defend ourselves," national security adviser Thaung Tun said. "I can assure you that force will be used with restraint. We will not use force with impunity."

The Arsa, through its Twitter account, has condemned the "Burmese state-sponsored terrorism" and accused the military of working with "Rakhine extremists" to burn down and loot property belonging to the Rohingya.

The exchanges have worried inter-faith activists like Ko Shine, who told The Straits Times: "Using the terms 'Bengali terrorists' and 'Islamic terrorists' creates distrust between Buddhists and Muslims in the country."

Communal tensions have been fraught for years in Rakhine state, where the Muslim Rohingya minority are rejected as illegal "Bengali" migrants, and have been subject to severe restrictions on their movements since deadly violence broke out between the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012. The Rohingya, unlike the Rakhine, are not recognised as one of the 135 official ethnic groups in the country.

Militants first attacked police bases last October, triggering a military crackdown which a United Nations (UN) report detailed as involving arson, mass gang rape and killing of civilians. The Myanmar authorities deny the atrocities and say the Rohingya burned their own homes.

Advocacy group Human Rights Watch, in a report released yesterday, warned that there have been widespread burnings in at least 10 areas in the northern part of Rakhine state. The blazes were detected by satellite in an area 100km in length, about five times the size of areas scorched late last year.

A report by an advisory commission chaired by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan last week warned against a "purely security response" to the threat posed by potential radicalisation.

"Commission members have instead called for a calibrated response that combines political, developmental, security and human rights approaches that address the root causes of violence and reduce inter-communal tensions," it said.

Correction note: This story has been edited for clarity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2017, with the headline 'Rakhine clashes matched by social media war'. Print Edition | Subscribe