Uproar in Myanmar as Facebook bans use of word used as slur against Muslims

Facebook is under global pressure to clamp down on hate speech, violent threats or deliberately misleading information on their platform. PHOTO: AFP

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar netizens were in an uproar on Monday (May 29) after Facebook seemingly banned people from posting the word "kalar", often used as a slur against Muslims, at a time of rising Islamophobia in the country.

Facebook is under global pressure to clamp down on hate speech, violent threats or deliberately misleading information on their platform - with efforts showing varying degrees of success.

Dozens of users in Myanmar reported being temporarily barred from the site recently after posting the controversial term kalar, which is frequently used as an insult for the country's embattled Muslim minority.

Some users said they were even blocked after writing other words that include the same sound in the Burmese alphabet, highlighting the difficulties Facebook has monitoring millions of posts in multiple languages.

Aung Kaung Myat said he had been prevented from liking, posting and sharing content on the site for 24 hours last week for writing about the apparent ban, as had many of his friends.

"It is ridiculous," he said. "I became a victim of it myself when I wrote: 'Facebook is deleting the posts that include the word 'kalar'."

Yarzar Soe-Oo said he was barred on Friday (May 26) after posting a jokey quip about eating Indian bean soup ("kalar pal hin") while sitting in a chair ("kalar htaing").

Facebook did not reply to e-mailed requests for comment while a spokesman for the Myanmar government said it had not pushed for a ban.

Kalar is a deeply controversial term in Myanmar, where it is used to refer to foreigners in general but most commonly to describe people of Indian origin and anything relating to their culture.

Over the years, it has also been turned into a derogatory slur by Buddhist nationalists against Muslims.

Two angry Facebook users have responded to the apparent ban by creating an event called "We own Kalar" in protest.

By early afternoon, some 1,400 people had said they were interested in attending the gathering, scheduled for Wednesday (May 31) in Yangon.

"Even though no action is taken against fake accounts which share hate speech and spew abuse... action is taken over (words we use every day)," said the organisers.

"We own the word as we have been using it for decades and over the centuries."

The push comes as Myanmar's government has been seeking to clamp down on hate speech after a spike in anti-Muslim actions by Buddhist hardliners.

In recent months they have shut down religious events, forced two Yangon schools accused of illegally doubling up as mosques to close and this month clashed with Muslims after pushing police to raid a house in their neighbourhood.

Last week, Myanmar's top Buddhist authority officially banned ultra-nationalist Ma Ba Tha movement, which responded on Sunday (May 28) by simply changing their name.

"If you write Ma Ba Tha, you can erase the words. But no one can erase Ma Ba Tha from your heart," leader Tilawka Biwuntha told the gathering.

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