TIME magazine’s recent cover story, ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror’, looked into the Buddhist-Muslim conflict in Myanmar. While the government banned the magazine, it unfurled an extensive campaign across several internet channels as violent protests, infrastructural destruction, and attacks spun in the Lashio district of Myanmar.
How does social media, mainly Facebook and Twitter, delve into the ethno religious divide between the Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar? What kind of presence does the TIME magazine’s contentious issue occupy on the social media forums whilst spinning heat waves between the two communities? What are the repercussions of social media in conflict scenarios that exude from this discourse?
TIME on the ‘Buddhist Terror’
TIME profiled Ashin Wirathu as the Buddhist 969 movement leader for advocating social exclusion of the minority Muslim population in Myanmar. Subsequently, between 20 June to 30 June 2013, several communities were created on Facebook with the popular trending theme of boycotting TIME magazine for having chosen Wirathu as the face of ‘Buddhist Terror’. Sharing almost 30,000 ‘Likes’ between them, the communities are fervently posting updates, links, images, videos, and comments about the situation every 1–2 hours. The largest fan page on Facebook, with a following of over 35,000, “We Boycott Time Magazine for their choice of Wirathu as ‘Buddhist Terror’” was created within minutes of the magazine’s release. On the other hand, nearly 20-30 ‘Tweets’ were posted on Twitter every second since 20 June 2013, which incorporated hash tags such as ‘#BuddhistTerror’, ‘#ArrestWirathu’, ‘#BoycottTIME’, and ‘#969’ to name a few. The primacy of these pages/tweets aimed to promote religious sentiments through regular postings of activities and events to achieve greater awareness and religious unification among communities.
The fan pages on Facebook and Twitter have stirred intensive segregation between the Buddhists and Muslims. The popular sentiment of blasphemous bigotry via radical upsurges has not germinated due to the recent episodes. They cater to the prevalent sectarian strife pressing for several decades between the two communities.
Power of Social Media for Change
Following the incident, Myanmar’s President, Thein Sein, condemned the magazine’s feature story by labelling the 969 movement ‘peaceful’ and defended Wirathu by calling him the ‘son of Lord Buddha’. The statement followed immense procession on Facebook and Twitter to boycott TIME magazine, criticising western media and the author of the article. Although the rare denunciation by the Myanmarese government did provide fresh impetus to propagate greater radicalisation between the Buddhist and Muslim community, it also fragmented the Buddhist community to safeguarding their religious sanctity. A significant classification amongst the Southeast Asian Buddhists ridiculed the issue in the wake of promoting ‘misconceptions against Buddhism’. For instance, on Facebook, Sanda Kinnarawi posted “the irresponsible behaviour of media, i.e. in this case - TIME Magazine, by publishing ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror’ issue has, merely, pointed fingers towards Buddhism. Buddhism is a philosophy which is based on truth and innocence. It has nothing to do with violence or terror in seeking to spread Buddhism.” On the other hand, radical citations were made by Sri Lankan Buddhists following the magazine’s ban in Sri Lanka. Ekanayake Kasun posted a YouTube link on Facebook about the blasts at Indian Buddha shrines in Bodh Gaya with his remarks as, “Who are terrorists now? Buddhists must not be patient now. Wipe Muslims from your country”. This dissension within the Buddhist community was, vehemently, marked on the social media platforms, significantly and apparently, unopposed to the Muslim colloquy.
The aforementioned pages on Facebook and Twitter have criticized TIME magazine’s cover story for being provocative and for implicating Buddhism, rather than specifying the actors for the violence targeted against the ethnic Muslim minorities. Moderate views were also expansively detectable on a few pages but with insignificant numbering. Muang Zarni, Myanmarese academician at the London School of Economics tweeted, “Myanmar’s ban on TIME is a sign of bad things to come for the Muslims of all ethnic backgrounds in Burma as it allows radical elements in society to operate with impunity. The TIME magazine report bears ‘heavy societal costs’ on the Myanmarese people by instilling tensions between the two communities.”
TIME Magazine’s controversial issue is an infant discourse that is a fallout of the deep-seated sectarian discord between the two communities within Myanmar. The issue, coupled with greater social interaction through virtual media, could enhance deeper faultlines to the ongoing conflict. Unlike any other war in the past, segmented discourses as identified within communities frolicked to the advantage of the significant other, i.e. the majority and dissuaded the voices that thought otherwise. However, in today’s social media era, conflicts are now being characterised by mass virtual participation of ordinary people via social media forums, either supporting their points of view or refuting other people’s claims. Beyond physical war, a high intensity virtual war is being waged to leverage diplomacy.