Free speech runs riot as anti-Muslim radicals fill vacuum

The murderous communal riots that have wracked Myanmar for nearly six months are edging closer to the country's most important cities, and to strong notice abroad, particularly in Muslim-majority countries.

The government faces serious security questions from civil rights activists at home and overseas, including its knee-jerk reaction to declare a state of emergency and call in the army at every riot.

The deaths, injuries and property destruction pose security threats to the government of President Thein Sein, and especially to its fragile attempt to transform Myanmar from a military-ruled tyranny into a functioning, free state.

Democracy requires free speech, but free speech is putting Myanmar at risk at the moment. Extremists, especially anti-Muslim radicals, have dominated and taken control of the country's community message. Unless government and decent civil society responds soon, Myanmar faces a downward spiral of violence with unpredictable but disastrous consequences.

The proper solution to offensive free speech is more free speech. That is not working and may not work in post-tyranny Myanmar for critical reasons.

The most important problem is the abject failure of the government, opposition and civil society to engage the extremists.

Thein Sein has been quick to bask in praise for what he claims are "reforms without parallel in modern times", but he has refused to condemn even murder and ethnic cleansing by Buddhists in Myanmar.

Even Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has merely called for new laws that she thinks may protect minorities, without serious criticism of killing and mass arson.

The army, which once controlled radicals with prison, torture, threats and ruthless intimidation, has completely abandoned that role. So far, it has stepped in to restore order when directed by the president, but has been totally inert as a proactive force.

Thus, the militants and extremists have not only gained control of the microphone, they also are using free speech without serious challenge to their message.

The other major failing of free speech in Myanmar is an inability to counter the extremists, currently controlling the microphones _ and the internet.

The seasoned Myanmar reporter James Hookway, in a report for The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, pictured pro-violent groups like the scurrilous Buddhist 969 Movement as dominating the Myanmar internet channels, and forcing out moderate messages.

But while the 969 group does dominate some internet forums, the truth is there's little to dominate.

Myanmar's hate and xenophobia are not controlled by militant messaging and microphone control. They are fuelled by a lack of means to communicate.

An excellent and credible in-depth survey of Myanmar's communications turned up a pitiful and pitiable lack of means to counter the hate speech with free speech.

Newspapers and magazines remain untrustworthy. TV and radio are unavailable to reasonable voices.

But it is precisely in new information and communications technology (ICT) where reasonable voices have no chance in Myanmar.

Three million of the country's 60 million people have mobile phones. Four million have no access at all to the internet, and a measly 1% of the country has an internet subscription. All three mobile phone operators are effectively government-controlled.

In short, the extremists have the only voice. Militant monks like Sayataw Wira Thu of 969 are not effectively countered anywhere _ not by the government, by civil society or the media including the internet.

As a result, this is a forking moment for free speech in Myanmar. The government and citizens have to decide whether the "free speech" of the extremist monks and nationalists can continue to foment violence, murders and ethnic cleansing.

Until high-ranking authorities expose the hate, and an effective internet-based media can affect public opinion, the government may be forced to revert to the old way of controlling hate speech, by the prison system. That would scratch the veneer of democratic reforms, but probably would stop the blatant and murderous attacks on minorities, especially Muslims. It is a tough call for the self-styled world-class reformer, but Thein Sein must face the hard choice soon, before racial and communal riots get entirely out of hand.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Alan Dawson
Position: Online Reporter