by Austin Bodetti
The Rohingya, Myanmar’s largest Muslim minority group, have suffered persecution at the hands of the country’s Buddhist-dominated military, the Tatmadaw, for decades. The United Nations has accused the Tatmadaw of waging “genocide” against the Rohingya, whom many in Myanmar deride as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and India bent on stealing the country’s land. For their part, the Rohingya contend that their ancestors settled Myanmar’s west many hundreds of years ago.
With the rise of Twitter, Rohingya activists have the perfect platform to draw attention to their plight and make their case.
The Tatmadaw’s mistreatment of the Rohingya has escalated in the last decade. In 2012, after several episodes of sectarian violence, soldiers confined the Rohingya to concentration camps. The Tatmadaw then accelerated plans to expel most of the minority from Myanmar in 2016 after Rohingya insurgents launched a handful of attacks. Soldiers soon forced thousands of Rohingya from the country.
The campaign shattered the Rohingya population in Myanmar. Between August 2017 and August 2018, 700,000 refugees—90 percent of the Rohingya who had once lived in Myanmar— arrived in Bangladesh, sparking concurrent ecological and humanitarian crises. The civilian government in Myanmar has expressed little interest in curbing the Tatmadaw’s abuses and repatriating the Rohingya, and conflicts in Afghanistan and Yemen have absorbed the international community’s attention. All but forgotten, the Rohingya have turned to the Internet, and Twitter in particular, to call for assistance.
“In 2012, Twitter wasn’t especially familiar to the Rohingya,” Anisul Islam, a Rohingya archivist and blogger, tells LobeLog. “Nonetheless, the extent of Rohingya activism on Twitter reached another level in 2016. There was a Twitter storm around the hashtag #endrohingyaoppression. In 2017, meanwhile, there was a Twitter frenzy around #wereareallrohingyanow. Twitter soon became one of the vital ways for Rohingya activists to get attention from foreign human rights organizations.”
“Since 2012, Facebook and Twitter have become important tools for connecting with people and telling our side of the story—to battle the false narratives of Myanmar’s military,” says Muhammad Noor, cofounder of the television channel Rohingya Vision and managing director of the Rohingya Project. “Rohingya activists have used Twitter to launch campaigns in Arabic and English.”
Although Rohingya activists have employed social networking services from Instagram to YouTube to court the sympathy of the international community, Twitter provides the Rohingya a unique opportunity to engage with the public by showing foreigners the war crimes still occurring in Myanmar.
“On Twitter, you can see videos of houses burning, people fleeing, and the dead being buried in mass graves,” says Islam. “There’s a lot of Rohingya activity on social media today.”
Despite the social networking service’s utility to the many Rohingya human rights activists based in Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia, Twitter’s availability in Myanmar itself remains more limited. In 2016, less than a third of the country’s population enjoyed access to the Internet. Facebook has also proved far more popular than Twitter among Rohingya and Myanmar’s population as a whole.
“Twitter has played some role in bringing Rohingya activists’ voices to light,” says Ashley S. Kinseth, executive director of the Stateless Dignity Project, a human rights group advocating for the Rohingya and other victims of statelessness. “However, most of the Rohingya—and, indeed, most in Myanmar—use Facebook almost exclusively, and many view it as their only source of news. Most whom I’ve encouraged to use Twitter frankly haven’t even heard of the platform or considered trying it.”
Facebook’s popularity in Myanmar has often come at a cost. Anti-Rohingya provocateurs have spread fake news on the social networking service to incite sectarian violence against the minority, which has faced countless massacres in recent years. In November 2018, Facebook admitted its accidental role in disseminating anti-Rohingya propaganda. Facebook’s haphazard attempts to resolve the worrying trend by banning problematic accounts have rarely worked. The social networking service only provoked further backlash when it blacklisted the accounts of several rebels in Myanmar earlier this year.
In contrast, Twitter has managed to avoid these controversies. One notable exception came last December, when Jack Dorsey, the social networking service’s chief executive, tweeted about celebrating his birthday in Myanmar. Human rights organizations responding by criticizing Dorsey for ignoring the Rohingya’s plight, forcing him to apologize. Nonetheless, Rohingya continue to use Twitter.
“Rohingya activists have mostly had problems with Facebook, not Twitter,” notes Noor, pointing to the allegations that Facebook facilitated disinformation and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.
Because the Rohingya lack support from a particular regional or world power, they have focused their appeals for humanitarian aid on the international community and the news media. Through Twitter, Rohingya activists can target audiences with vested interests in Myanmar and the power to intervene on the persecuted minority’s behalf, from intergovernmental organizations to public figures. Social networking services such as Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube lack the same reach.
“Twitter is different from other social networking services in that we can easily and instantly get attention from any public figure in the international community,” Islam tells LobeLog. “Rohingya activists will often tweet at Aung San Suu Kyi and the UN Security Council.”
In the face of ethnic cleansing that the Tatmadaw has tried to frame as counterterrorism, Rohingya activists have demonstrated their mastery of public relations. Last year, Australia sanctioned several of Myanmar’s top generals. In the United States, meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans alike have decried the Tatmadaw’s brutal campaign against the Rohingya. Britain, which ruled Myanmar’s predecessor state, Burma, until 1948, has rallied the international community to the Rohingya’s cause. Twitter has helped Rohingya activists mobilize this support.
“Twitter contributed to Rohingya issues and the genocide getting a lot of attention abroad,” says Islam. “The news media didn’t used to pay attention to the Rohingya. Now—thanks to the power of technology—all Rohingya are journalists who can share their harrowing experiences.”
Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda, and his research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.