For more than 60 years, a protracted civil war has simmered across Myanmar, largely hidden from the outside world.
Rebel armies – 15 are active in the country – are fighting the Myanmar military for greater autonomy and control over various minority ethnic areas, a complex and often intertwining struggle that has seen thousands of civilians killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. Some of the rebels, like the Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa State Army, have controlled and administered large swaths of territory for years.
On Tuesday, Facebook appeared to inadvertently wade into the conflict – considered by many to be the world’s longest-running civil war – by announcing a ban on profile pages linked to four ethnic rebel groups. The move was part of the company’s efforts to clamp down on the spread of hate speech and incitement to violence on its platform.
While the move to combat misinformation and violent content in Myanmar is welcomed by many in the country, analysts say that the ban on these groups ignores the complexities of Myanmar’s armed struggles, and that the Facebook announcement’s vague wording could risk silencing those on the ground working to help civilians in minority ethnic areas.
CNN reached out to Facebook, which said it had evidence that the four groups were responsible for attacks against civilians and were engaged in violence in Myanmar, and indicated that other non-state armed groups were part of ongoing investigations.
Less than a decade ago, just 0.3% of Myanmar’s population was connected to the internet as the nation emerged from years of isolated military rule. There are now 18 million Facebook users and the site is so popular that for many it has become synonymous with the internet and a primary source of news and information.
Facebook has recently been stepping up efforts to remove hateful, false or violent content from its platform in Myanmar after United Nations investigators accused the platform of facilitating violence against Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine state.
Anti-Muslim hate speech posted to Facebook “substantively” contributed to the “level of acrimony” against the Rohingya following the military’s crackdown in Rakhine that forced more than 700,000 people to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, a UN report said.
“I’m afraid that Facebook has now turned into a beast, and not what it originally intended,” the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said at the time.
In response, Facebook admitted that it failed to do enough to prevent its platform being used to fuel political division and bloodshed in Myanmar.
Since August 2018, it has banned hundreds of profiles and pages linked to the Myanmar military – including commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing – and those it said were engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
In its announcement Tuesday, Facebook designated the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Kachin Independence Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army as “dangerous organizations” and banned them from the site, as well as “all related praise, support and representation.”
“There is clear evidence that these organizations have been responsible for attacks against civilians and have engaged in violence in Myanmar, and we want to prevent them from using our services to further inflame tensions on the ground,” the Facebook statement said.
Facebook said Tuesday’s ban is partly in response to a surge in violence in western Rakhine state after the Arakan Army attacked police outposts, killing 13 policemen, according to the Myanmar military. Ensuing clashes between the insurgent group and the Myanmar army have displaced more than 4,500 people since December, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
But the Facebook decision, which covers just four rebel groups that together make up the Northern Alliance, has analysts questioning what methods Facebook uses to determine who should – and shouldn’t – be on the site.
“It’s not clear to me that Facebook has any underlying principles by which it is judging legitimacy (of these groups),” said Aaron L. Connelly, Southeast Asian politics and foreign policy expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The four ethnic army pages were removed in part for attacking civilians. But other ethnic armies, as well as the Myanmar military, have also engaged in atrocities such as recruiting child soldiers, laying landmines, and killing and raping civilians.
“So the question would be, what is the difference? What is the principle by which Facebook is deciding that the Northern Alliance groups are illegitimate and the Myanmar central government is legitimate?” Connelly said.
In its statement, Facebook acknowledged that the “sources of ethnic violence in Myanmar are incredibly complex and cannot be resolved by a social media company.” It continued, “We also want to do the best we can to limit incitement and hate that furthers an already deadly conflict.”
Facebook said it had been contacted by the Myanmar government over the four groups, but there was no pressure behind the decision to ban them.
Concerns of silencing civil society
The company’s announcement shows just how fraught policing the site has become in areas where political divisions are complex and ever-changing.
“There are some loaded terms in their announcement that are begging for clarification,” said Matt Smith, co-founder and CEO of human rights groups Fortify Rights, who has had recent discussions with Facebook over its operations in Myanmar.
“At one point the company suggests they made their decision to ban these groups in order to limit incitement and hate on the platform. But elsewhere it suggests the groups are banned because they attacked civilians.
“The environment in Myanmar around ethnic conflict is tense, and it’s not entirely helpful to conflate these terms.”
More problematic, analysts argue, is Facebook’s claim that it will remove “all related praise, support and representation” of the four groups “as soon as we become aware of it.”
That suggests Facebook could extend the ban to the pages of ethnic people living under the control of the armed groups, civil society organizations that provide vital services to vulnerable people living in volatile areas, or organizations not engaged in armed conflict but that believe armed groups are legitimately fighting for greater autonomy for the state.
Facebook said it removes all praise and support of banned groups even if the praise and support is of a group’s non-violent activities and enforces that policy regardless of context.
But Connelly said the company “has been haphazard with their actions in Myanmar with regard to removing pages.”
“It would be very difficult for anyone watching in Myanmar to trust Facebook’s judgment in these cases anymore,” he said.
Analysts say Facebook can be more transparent in its decision-making process to ensure it effectively targets those spreading hate and violence on its platforms – especially over what it considers to be a “dangerous group.”
“This is one of the problematic issues with the way that Facebook has approached this question, with banning pages entirely as opposed to removing content that violates their terms of service with regard to not fomenting racism or sectarian hatred,” Connelly said. “It seems as though instead of actually trying to go about that in a systematic way they have just started removing pages.”
Facebook said it does not allow any organizations or individuals that are engaged in organized violence to have a presence on Facebook.
Smith recommended that Facebook explain its decision-making framework and develop a policy consistent with international humanitarian law.
“We fully encourage the company to take action against armies that target civilians. It would be helpful for the company to clarify what it regards as an attack on civilians and how it sources its investigations,” he added.