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FACEBOOK DISCRIMINATION?: Tatmadaw resurfaced after two years of absence from social media

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To the surprise of Burma or Myanmar watchers and general public, Myanmar Tatmadaw or the Military resurfaced again after two years of forced absence from the Facebook.

The Military opened two Burmese-language Facebook accounts called “Tatmadaw True News Information Team” and “Zaw Min Tun,” military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told Radio Free Asia (RFA) on June 10 Wednesday.

Facebook screenshot. Today တပ်မတော်သတင်းမှန်ပြန်ကြားရေးအဖွဲ့ cannot be accessed. SWS

According to him, Tatmadaw’s undertaking to open accounts on popular social media platform, which has some 22 million users, is to  to counter misinformation and fake news, adding that Tatmadaw will follow Facebook’s community standards.

“Facebook is widely used in Myanmar, [and] media and civil society groups release information through it,” he said. 

“We decided to use Facebook in order to provide news concerning Tatmadaw in timely and accurate manner where real and fake news are mixed together on the Facebook,” he added.

According to him no agreements were said to be made between the Military and Facebook prior to the registration of the two new accounts.

However, it is startling that Facebook has given the green light for the Tatmadaw to open up accounts again which it in August 2018 removed 18 accounts and 50 pages associated with the Tatmadaw, following the brutal military-led crackdown in 2017 that left thousands of Rohingya dead and drove out some 700,000 to Bangladesh. 

The removal of Military accounts, including its Commander-in-Chief  Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, came about after Facebook had been criticized for allowing posts that spread hatred against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, leading to mass murders and mass exodus to the neighbouring country. 

Still, the Military has been able to make use of  Russian social media service VK, available in multiple languages, following Facebook’s ban on its accounts. Besides, it also continued the maintenance of its websites for the commander-in-chief and as well its information team, including the Military owned Myawaddy television network.

On February 2019, Facebook banned four ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) fighting the Tatmadaw  from its social network, the company said, saying it wanted to prevent offline harm by removing groups it branded “dangerous organisations”, according to a Reuters’ report. 

“In an effort to prevent and disrupt offline harm, we do not allow organizations or individuals that proclaim a violent mission or engage in violence to have a presence on Facebook,” the company said. 

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Facebook screenshot. Today တပ်မတော်သတင်းမှန်ပြန်ကြားရေးအဖွဲ့ cannot be accessed. SWS

The Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Kachin Independence Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, collectively known as Northern Alliance – Burma (NA-B), were banned, Facebook said in a statement of February 2019, adding it would remove “praise, support and representation” of the groups. 

However,  the bans targeted only four of the EAOs that have been fighting against the Tatmadaw for more rights of self-determination or autonomy. The ethnic conflict have been raging on and off ever since  Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948. 

Rights groups, such as Burma Campaign UK, Human Rights Watch and Fortify Rights were openly sceptical and outspoken of the Tatmadaw’s professed intent to provide true news to the public, according to the recent RFA report.

Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, said the military has set up the two new “propaganda pages to spread lies” as it faces legal action on genocide-related charges in three international courts, including the U.N.’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.

“They are under pressure, and obviously they want to convince people in Myanmar that the evidence against them is not true,” he said. “They want to build more support for their actions.”

“This is more about trying to get back into the information stream that Burmese people are looking at to try to influence their opinions about what is happening in Rakhine (Arakan) State, Kachin State, and Shan State, and other areas where the Tatmadaw is involved in conflicts with armed insurgency groups,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Nickey Diamond, a Myanmar human rights specialist with the Southeast Asia-based NGO Fortify Rights, said the Myanmar military can issue information to the public via other means such as news conferences.

“Tatmadaw doesn’t need to release true news. If independent media are allowed to freely report and write independently the public will be (adequately) informed.”

“Using Facebook to release information appears to be a move to counter news reported by the media rather than to provide accurate information. I believe they (Tatamdaw) can also release information they want through press conference and no need to publish in Facebook,” he said.

“(Tatmadaw) desire to release news on Facebook is more to counter the news and facts (which it considers maybe harmful to it) than to provide accurate information,” he added.

He said the Tatmadaw cannot be trusted in its capacity to provide genuine information.

Given such recent development, a series of questions arise such as: why the Tatmadaw is again allowed to reopen its Facebook accounts, which were  banned due to the massacre of Rohingya and exodus because of related propaganda hate postings; whether the NA-B would be allowed to resume the usage of Facebook like the Tatmadaw, which is, more or less, in the same category regarding human rights violations norms as seen by the Facebook in the time span of 2018-19; whether Facebook has now a new set of criteria on how the armed organizations in Burma should behave when using the social media; and whether Facebook will inform the NA-B, which it has banned, its new policy, which is presumed to be in place, given the Tatmadaw being allowed to reopen account again; need more clarification in order to create a level playing field for all.

For now, as “Tatmadaw True News Information Team” and “Zaw Min Tun” Facebook accounts are starting to churn out propagandas for the Military, while the NA-B is clearly handicapped in media front. But whether Facebook will take the trouble to make its social media platform a level playing field for all armed forces, including the Tatmadaw, is an open question that only Facebook could answer.

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