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Bitter enmity at the heart of communal unrest in western Burma has spilled online, with incendiary posts on social media sites reflecting deep-rooted hostilities in the region, experts said.
Several days of deadly sectarian violence have seen the government declare a state of emergency in Arakan state and talk of the clashes has lit up social networking websites like Twitter and Facebook.
A wide spectrum of opinion has been aired by web users embracing new freedoms on the Internet, which was tightly controlled under years of authoritarian military rule that ended last year.
But experts say the level of vitriol stirred up by the rioting has reached worrying levels.
“Recent events in western Burma have created a hurricane of hate in the online sphere,” Nicholas Farrelly, a research fellow at the Australian National University, told AFP.
“Tragically, contested accounts of the clashes provide fuel for hardliners on both sides.”
Much malice has been targeted at the Rohingya, considered by the UN to be one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, who number around 800,000 in Arakan state and are part of a larger Muslim community there.
They have long been viewed as “foreign” by the government and many Burmese. They have a mutually suspicious relationship with many ethnic Arakanese, who are mostly Buddhist and view the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
A cycle of apparent revenge attacks erupted in the state earlier this month when 10 Muslims were beaten to death by a mob, in an apparent response to the rape and murder of an Arakanese woman.
Violent rhetoric and rumour has proliferated online, with comments such as “Kill Kalars”, a derogatory term used for those regarded as outsiders — in this context, Muslims — appearing on web comment boards.
One Facebook page called the “Kalar beheading gang”, which has over 500 ‘likes’, has an illustration of a grim reaper with an Islamic symbol on its robe on a blood-spattered background and explicit images purporting to be of victims of the unrest.
The Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma reported on Tuesday that its English and Burmese websites had been hacked by a group called Blink.
“In order to cleanse our religious land, sometimes we have to bloody our hands,” read a message on Blink’s website, according to DVB, which said it “can be translated as a threat aimed at the area’s Muslim minority”.
Similar language has also been used by those supporting the Rohingya, with one widely distributed email seen by AFP accusing “Buddhist fanatics” of atrocities.
“On both sides of the conflict there are those who could benefit from precipitating clashes,” said Farrelly.
He said some Buddhist hardliners could be seeking to “purge” the Rohingya from Burma, with some on the Rohingya side possibly keen to encourage greater attention to their situation in the country.
It is unclear how much of the vitriol has emanated from the unrest-hit area, where Internet access is limited.
“The very low levels of Internet penetration in Myanmar make it unlikely that this online racist rhetoric has been driving the spread of the violence,” said a report by the International Crisis Group on Tuesday.
“But the disturbing views posted widely online are reflective of the view of people on the ground,” it said, urging the government not to resort to Internet censorship, but to allow open reporting from local media to provide balance.
According to Jan Zalewski, an analyst with the IHS Global Insight research group, the boundaries between anti-Rohingya sentiment and anti-Muslim sentiment are “increasingly blurring”.
“The risk of propaganda translating into violent action is increased by the fact that with information flows highly restricted/controlled in Myanmar over the past decades, there is too little awareness now about the dangers of uncontrolled/inciting information littered across the web,” he wrote.
The United Nations has evacuated most international staff from northern Arakan state, where the Rohingya are concentrated. AFP reporters have been unable to visit many of the affected areas for security reasons.
“The Burmese public are believing one side of the story, which is that Rohingya are not Burmese, are not citizens and are just Bengali settlers trying to take their land,” said Phil Robertson, of New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Social media provided “frankly chilling racist diatribe inciting violence,” he added. “It is a recipe for disaster.”