On August 27, Facebook banned 20 senior military-linked figures in Myanmar from its platform, including Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw, as the armed forces are locally known. The ban was the social media network’s first major action in response to last year’s violence against Rohingya Muslims, which resulted in the forced exodus of more than 700,000 people.
Facebook’s move came in the wake of a report released by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, following a year-long fact finding mission into the actions of Myanmar’s military and civilian leaders. The report found that “clearance operations” conducted by the Tatmadaw amounted to “crimes against humanity.”
The report provided detailed accounts of atrocities committed by the Myanmar military, including gang rapes of women and girls, arson, and organized mass killings. The degree of coordination among the military, the report said, indicated that “individual criminal liability would extend beyond individual perpetrators, to their hierarchical commanders.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
To that end, the report recommended that Min Aung Hlaing, along with five other senior military officials, be investigated for genocide at the International Criminal Court.
The double punch of the UN report and Facebook’s ban signify the international community’s strongest condemnation so far of Myanmar’s senior military command.
Facebook’s action in particular is likely to have far-reaching effects. The platform is enormously popular in Myanmar, and the military frequently uses it to rally support, promote its ideology, and disparage reporting that casts the country in a negative light. Additionally, as more and more political campaigning is conducted online, the ban may hinder the political ambitions of the commander-in-chief, one of the country’s most visible public figures.
Government spokespersons declined to comment for this article.
In a statement accompanying the action, Facebook wrote, “This is a huge responsibility given so many people [in Myanmar] rely on Facebook for information — more so than in almost any other country given the nascent state of the news media and the recent rapid adoption of mobile phones”
A survey conducted by the International Republican Institute in 2017 found that 73 percent of Myanmar’s Facebook users say that their main use for the site is to consume local and international news.
Min Aung Hlaing himself has frequently used Facebook to promote an ideology that casts the Myanmar military as the defender of the country’s traditional values. The senior general has an enormous following on the social media site. Two pages attributed to him commanded 2.8 million followers and 1.3 million, respectively. Facebook banned both last Monday.
The platform has often been the commander-in-chief’s primary tool for communicating with the public. When Pope Francis visited Myanmar last November, and discussed the fate of the Rohingya with Min Aung Hlaing, the general’s response to the meeting appeared first on Facebook.
“There’s no religious discrimination in Myanmar and there’s the freedom of religion,” his personal page read. “Every soldier’s goal is to build a stable and peaceful country.”
The commander-in-chief often used Facebook to decry “fake news” written about Myanmar. In one post from June, Min Aung Hlaing accused the international community of inventing the idea of the Rohingya, writing: “The word Rohingya is a word [the UN] fabricated. Myanmar citizens do not at all accept the usage Rohingya.”
While Myanmar’s military has often refused to comment publicly about last year’s operations, the brazen use of Facebook in Myanmar to castigate the Rohingya has been a crucial tool for investigators looking into the violence. In June, Reuters published a detailed account of the activities of two Myanmar Army Light Infantry Divisions during last year’s campaign. Much of the evidence for the report was readily available on Facebook in the form of public posts.
Soldiers from the 99th and 33rd Light Infantry Divisions posted public statements about their actions and motivations, such as, “If they are Bengali, they will be killed” and “The Kalar are quiet now…Kalar villages have been burned.” (The military refuses to use the word “Rohingya,” and often calls the population “Bengalis.” “Kalar” is a racial epithet used to characterize people of dark-skinned South Asian descent.)
The liberal use of Facebook by the soldiers allowed Reuters to detail the precise roles that the 99th and 33rd played in the campaign against the Rohingya.
The UN Human Rights Council report recommended that the commanders of both divisions, Brigadier Generals Aung Aung and Than Oo, should be investigated for genocide. Facebook banned the pages of both officers.
The Facebook ban may also have profound impacts on Myanmar’s next general election. Min Aung Hlaing is widely expected to run for president of Myanmar in 2020. Facebook has been a convenient way for the commander-in-chief to tout his political credentials. The general’s personal page frequently showcased photos of him visiting and serving members of the Buddhist clergy, as important for politicians in Myanmar’s highly devout society as kissing babies is in America.
Some analysts believe that the double punch of the UN Report and the Facebook ban will spell political disaster for Min Aung Hlaing. In a written statement, Khin Zaw Win, director of the Tampadipa Institute, a Yangon-based policy organization, told The Diplomat that the Facebook ban “will have a huge impact…something like this hasn’t happened to a [commander-in-chief]. It’s like being disgraced and humiliated in front of the entire Myanmar population… Min Aung Hlaing’s political ambitions are doomed.”
Others say that Facebook’s actions will have little effect. The platform may be an easy way to reach millions of news consumers, but the military also controls radio and TV stations, as well as several newspapers. These traditional media have been crucial for rallying popular support for the military’s leaders. Many in Myanmar believe that the military’s actions against the Rohingya were just. And no international action will change that mindset.
Kelassa, a 30-year-old Buddhist monk in Yangon, said, “Min Aung Hlaing has the support of the Myanmar people, because he defends our traditional values. Myanmar is a Buddhist country, and the Senior General understands this. We will stand by him.”
Daniel Combs is an author and researcher who is working on a book about Myanmar.