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Hate speech testing Myanmar democracy

In an age of an abrupt new openness after decades of repression, the line between freedom of speech and human rights is blurred in Myanmar, injecting a dangerous volatility into even commonplace incidents.

“People cannot differentiate between freedom of speech and human rights. They think they can say what they like,” prominent monk Ashin Dhammapiya said at a conference on hate speech in Yangon last Friday.

The government is also mulling over how to cope with a flood of chatter, propaganda and hate speech on the Internet, in the midst of ongoing tension and violence fuelled by Buddhist supremacist monks campaigning against Muslims.

Deputy Minister for Information Ye Htut, a former army officer, said at the conference that half of Myanmar's approximately 800,000 Facebook accounts had been set up under fake names.

The phenomenon is a carry-over from decades in which anonymous rumors were the most potent force in an environment where there was little or no room for open expression and information.

“Small criminal cases (could turn into) religious riots when people turn to social media to put out wild rumors and accusations,” Ye Htut said at the one-day conference, organized by the U.S. Embassy, titled Preventing Hate Speech In Myanmar: Divergent Voices In A New Democracy.

Rejecting claims of political conspiracy behind the anti-Muslim violence that has rocked Myanmar and underlined the fragility of its latest experiment with democracy, he added: “As far as we know, this is happening naturally, not by those behind the scenes. People are spreading gunpowder on Facebook.”

The Internet's penetration in the country of around 60 million is only 7 percent. But it is set to increase rapidly. This creates a problem in a culture in which many are not used to the Internet and accept whatever they read or see on it as fact.

Figuring out limits to freedom and navigating propaganda could spell the difference between a genuinely democratic and secular Myanmar, and a country where authoritarianism of the majority Burman Buddhists replaces military authoritarianism, analysts say.

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