Baffled, hurt or indignant, many inside Myanmar are struggling to digest a week of opprobrium heaped on their country by the UN and even Facebook over the treatment of the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim group whose plight elicits little sympathy in the Buddhist-majority nation.
Last year’s military crackdown ostensibly on Rohingya militants pushed out some 700,000 of the minority in violence that horrified the world.
But in Myanmar, the army was widely cheered for its defence of the country from ‘Bengali’ interlopers – as the Rohingya are falsely cast.
A UN report on Monday pulled few punches in calling for the army chief’s prosecution for genocide against the Rohingya and singled out Myanmar’s democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi for failing to speak up for the group.
Yet the public response has been muted on an issue warped by Islamophobic rhetoric and the rehashed history peddled by the military.
‘We were happy to fight the military for democracy but we don’t want to fight them over Rakhine,’ shipowner Kyaw Kyaw, 47, said, from a Yangon teashop.
‘I have sympathy for the victims but defending our country from terrorism is more important,’ he added, parroting the official line that the army ‘clearance
operations’ were justified to root out Rohingya militants.
Myanmar’s evolution from military rule to a quasi-democracy in 2011 brought with it freedoms unknown for nearly half a century.
Even so, most people still rely for information on state media, Facebook or a fledgling independent media that mostly toes the government line when it comes to the Rohingya.
There are signs that politics is again becoming taboo, as patriotism and a deep mistrust of a still-powerful army dull criticism.
At the same time a siege mentality is building in a country that felt the glow of global support just a few years ago as its story of triumph over authoritarianism captured the headlines.
‘I feel sad the world is looking down upon Myanmar people,’ says traditional doctor Than Sein, 50, from a neighbouring teashop table, remembering how Buddhists and Muslims used to eat at each other’s houses and lamenting they no longer do so.
Suu Kyi, still a heroine domestically, articulated the mood.
‘We who are living through the transition in Myanmar view it differently from those who observe it from the outside and who will remain untouched by its outcome,’ she said this week in a speech in Singapore.
The UN’s call for prosecution of the military top brass was buttressed by unprecedented action by Facebook, which pulled down the profile of army chief Min Aung Hlaing, 17 other accounts of top generals and 52 pages followed by almost 12 million people.
The social media site, hugely influential in a country that only recently came online, said the move was to prevent them from using the site to ‘further inflame ethnic and religious tensions’.
It has come under fire for being slow to react to hate speech, which cascaded across its platform last year as the Rohingya fled to Bangladesh.
Scrambling to restore its image, Facebook has launched a PR campaign highlighting improved technology and more staff to detect incendiary posts and misinformation.
The ban seems to have elicited far more outcry than the prospect of military leaders one day being hauled before the International Criminal Court.
Some jumped to the generals’ defence, adopting the army chief’s photo as their profile picture, as reports surfaced that he and military supporters were already migrating to Russian social media platform VK.
‘If we, the people, and the army are together, who can destroy us?’ one Facebook post declared.
Even the civilian government spokesman rushed to address the issue before responding to the damning UN report, reassuring blacklisted generals that the government had not been in cahoots with the tech giant.
The effect of this ban and the recent blacklisting of Islamophobic monks and groups has been small but noticeable, says president of monitoring group ‘PEN Myanmar’ Ma Thida.
People now know ‘they need to be careful if they don’t want their accounts to be deleted or deactivated’, she says.
Muslim journalist Aung Naing Soe, a target of racial slurs and even death threats himself, agrees there are fewer toxic posts being spread on the site.
‘I think they’re staying low-profile,’ he says. ‘Nobody wants to lose their Facebook account in this country.’
For others, the measures smell of the censorship of old.
‘Shutting down the Facebook pages of the military is the kind of stunt the junta used to pull,’ doctor Zune Ei says. ‘They closed the eyes and mouths of the people for decades.’
But the generals ‘should face the ICC and make it clear if they did not do anything wrong,’ she adds.
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