Burma, Irrawaddy and the unintended consequences of digital free speech

by adrienne debigare

Last month, Burmese media company Irrawaddy suffered a transmedia attack in response to their coverage of controversial and ultra-nationalist Burmese Buddhist monk, Wirathu. The Blink Hacker Collective, who took responsibility for the attack, brought the site down on October 2, through what Irrawaddy believes was an attack on their servers. Shortly after the piece about Wirathu was published, Irrawaddy’s Facebook page was also bombarded by “hundreds of pieces of hate mail.”

To truly understand the significance of the attack, it’s important to understand the circumstances that brought it about. Burma is a place comprised primarily of ethnic Buddhists, and has until recently been incredibly repressed by harsh military rule. Though their progress is not revolutionary, the government has been making strides towards freedom, including by relaxing laws regarding freedom of speech. This relaxation, coupled with the introduction of the Internet and Facebook, led to an outpouring of hate speech and then violence against the Muslim minority, the Rohingya. 

This initial outpouring also led to a counter-offensive called the Panzagar--Flower Speech--movement (), that urged citizens against spreading hate speech. The unintended consequence of the movement though, is that the citizenry is extremely reluctant to even engage in a dialogue around the issue of the Rohingya. According to interviews conducted by Ethan Zuckerman of the Berkman Center and the MIT Center for Civic Media, no one will even use the word Rohingya, and instead refer to this portion of the population as “Bengali nationals,” inferring that members of the ethnic group are not rightful citizens.

Wirathu has emerged as a leader for the ultra-nationalist, anti-Muslim Buddhists. He tells his followers that Muslims “target innocent young Burmese girls and rape them", and "indulge in cronyism." In the early 2000’s he was jailed for his rhetoric, but was released in 2010. Since then, he has worked to polarize the nation, using the newly introduced social media channels to spread his message more quickly.

On Oct 1, 2014 Irrawady published an article admonishing the monk and his new partnership with like-minded group Bodu Bala Sena in Sri Lanka. That same day, the company’s founder Aung Zaw was honored as one of this year’s recipients of the Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The next day, the hacker group struck. They alleged “Irrawaddy supports Jihad& Radical Muslims. For the defend of the Muslims and Allah, Irrawady have shown attacking Buddhists and others Non-Muslims with Media News [sic].” The site was funtioning by later in the day, but the culture that bred its takedown remains. And the man who perpetuates this polarization continues to preach unobstructed.