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The Atrocities in Myanmar Can’t Be Summed Up in a Tweet

Saya Iwasaki
Dec 10, 2018 · 11 min read
Photo: Jack Dorsey/Twitter

Earlier this month, Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter and Square, posted this tweet, the first in a long series about a birthday trip to meditate in Myanmar:

The tweet may have come off naïve considering the current context of Myanmar and the genocidal persecution of the ethnic Rohingya there, but I found a bigger issue in the responsive comments and articles that followed. Some twitterers twisted Dorsey’s enjoyment of the country to say he must be “happy” that the Rohingya are being killed, and some bitingly asked how many dead bodies he had to step over. But many of the opinions tossed out by these reactive people hint that their perspectives are based on limited knowledge. Perhaps they intended to present good conscience, but the reality is that their less-than-280-character tweets are far removed from the actual issues.

Some of the top Jack Dorsey headlines on Dec. 9, 2018.

This kind of blowback highlights a much bigger media and social media problem that we are all complicit in—one where it’s easy to make blanket statements about people instead of creating safe spaces for constructive dialogue and conflict resolution. The world is getting increasingly complex and moving toward a dynamical system where beliefs, feelings, actions, and norms change and evolve into a pattern based on interactions with one another over time. This includes patterns of polarization.

Consider the following two posts on Dorsey—the first from a U.S. citizen and the second from a Myanmar one—and how they illustrate the perpetuation of an in-group/out-group dynamic, or “othering” of each other:

A post by a U.S. citizen
A post by a Myanmar citizen

When harsh criticisms from the outside arise against a country, it can trigger anti-foreign sentiments that strengthen the nationalistic in-grouping of certain populations. With insults being amplified, conflict resolution becomes much harder and shifting mindsets becomes very difficult.

Therefore, understanding how we engage in these dialogues is important in helping us move toward a place where we collectively bring justice and peace where needed. There is no doubt that human rights and humanitarian atrocities are happening in Myanmar and that those with power and influence must wield it well to serve humanity better. But likewise, blanket condemnations like the ones above can lead mass groups to spend more time defending their position than collaboratively figuring out the best path to resolving issues.

It is not lost on me that this piece may polarize people as well, but it aims to be about more than Myanmar and help move us toward a new norm for meaningful dialogue in the complex world of politics, internet, economics, and globalization.

Taking a Step Back

I call Myanmar home, and it’s shaped me to become who I am today. It is fact that a Rohingya crisis is happening in Myanmar. It is fact that Myanmar has a lot of issues it has to deal with, including other wars and conflicts elsewhere in the country. And it is fact that resolving these conflicts is taking time. Lambasting Dorsey, however, does not contribute any solutions. Some commenters are angry at “Myanmar authorities” without addressing the political powers at play, and a lot of others criticize Myanmar in a way that suggests the whole country is responsible for what’s been happening.

Myanmar’s complex history with politics, race, and religion requires a lot of unpacking, unlearning, and collaborative conflict resolution. For example, people chastise State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for having not resolved the crises in the country, but they do not provide commentary on the different political agendas that are in tension with each other and stifle progress at times. To what extent have those kinds of commenters engaged in dialogue with people living in the country to understand the different perspectives in the nation and why those opinions exist? How many have heard voices from the people who are actively working to reform the country as best they can, knowing just as well what the problems are?

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s state counselor. Photo: Anton Raharjo/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Knowing even a bit of history would produce more intelligent and beneficial reactions. Despite that the area known today as Myanmar predominantly emerged around Buddhism in the fourth century, it has been a home equally to a diverse populous of religions for centuries. Before British colonial rule in the 1820s, the region was a collection of neighboring ethnic groups with their own kingdoms. When they were forced to become one under the British—which then dubbed all of Burma based on the Bama ethnic group—tensions between the ethnic groups flared. In the early-to-mid 1900s, Gen. Aung San (Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s father) and his cabinet fought for Burma’s independence and unification from both the British and Japanese, but he was assassinated by paramilitaries in 1947. While the country became independent just six months later, its ethnic tensions were never fully resolved, and they seeped into its succeeding military junta, which changed the name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989.

They continued to rule as a totalitarian state and not without coups, censorship, and major crackdowns on the people’s democratic uprisings—notably in 1988 and 2008. Elections in 2012 marked Myanmar’s statement to the world that the military was letting go of its stronghold and the country was moving toward a democracy, but it is still figuring out its national and political identity. There are still longstanding internal conflicts happening in Kachin and Shan states. In 2017, U Ko Ni, a prominent Muslim NLD lawyer and adviser to Daw Suu was assassinated in broad daylight at the airport, and it’s still unclear who ordered his death.

Really Looking and Listening

And all of that is just the most simplified version. Not everyone in Myanmar has lived the same life. Citizens there have all been the oppressed, the oppressor, or powerless bystanders at some point. It is their richly experienced voices that matter in changing the country and resolving the conflicts. Just as in the U.S., it is up to people living in Myanmar to curb the injustices they witness. Tweets and commentary that shame Myanmar as a whole reflect only seeing a fraction of the big picture. What’s worse is that they also unfairly isolate the activists, educators, business owners, etc., who are working as much as possible to change the future of their own country.

A friend of mine visited Myanmar last year with her family. Before the trip, her daughter was concerned—based on what she had read online—that fueling Myanmar’s economy through tourism would perpetuate the crisis. Since she had the means, opportunity, and interest, I offered up that it was her responsibility to visit Myanmar to truly understand the situation before she could make judgments. They went and came back saying they’d developed a richer perspective, even the skeptical daughter. They held to their opinions on the persecution but found out there were other wars going on that weren’t making the news circuit. Their opinion now is that it’s a rich and complicated country that needs a lot of work and resources to graduate from its history.

It’s easy to consume media; we do so nearly every second. But information can exist in echo chambers that hold variations of the “truth” that are too easily shared and reshared without thought. Social media’s “retweet problem” creates an illusory truth effect where lies feel like they are truths only because of sheer repetition. The more familiar something is, the more people believe it.

Bringing personal judgment and open-mindedness to critique a situation is valuable, and it also involves embracing the complexity that applying those skills brings. As writer Amanda Ripley has put it, “If we want to learn the truth, we have to find new ways to listen.”

The Greater Narrative

For years, Western governments have practiced sanctions or boycotting as soft persuasions instead of going to war. The U.S. imposed economic sanctions against Myanmar during its military regime (and recently on specific members of the military), though its sanctions did not significantly affect the country’s economics.

It’s a imperialist approach to change, with the expectation that the country will evolve to the standards of the sanction issuers. But while the U.S. government expected its lack of presence and attention would be enough to pressure Myanmar to change, the Myanmar government made new friends in Asia. This exemplifies the polarization mentioned earlier: It was easier for the Myanmar government to find other governments that shared their interests.

Photo: Art Young/The Instigators

Much of the world thinks of the Rohingya genocide when they think of Myanmar and that is the only Myanmar they think of. Some even argue that it’s the only one anyone should think of. From inside Myanmar, however, people see things differently. Some hear about international DJ artists dropping out of a concert just because they were told Myanmar wasn’t a good place to visit. Some witness Western activists in the country shaming Buddhists, while others feel an increasing fear of Islamic extremism and faith in the government to keep them safe. Some think Rohingyas are imposing on their sanctity, but others only see the war in the states of Kachin and Shan that are receiving little to no international advocacy. Some endure bureaucracy in their missions to bring universal health care and education reform while others will continue to see their homes destroyed simply because of who they are.

When these perspectives are ignored in the greater narrative, it creates societal silos with people more hard-lined in their beliefs. It can drive populations to spout their own radical narratives, and the rise of Facebook in that kind of environment is creating mass confusion over false information. Neo-nationalism and xenophobia have increased in Myanmar, with tech adding fuel to the fires.

Electronics store in Myanmar Photo: Adam Jones

Part of what’s compounding the problem is that mobile phone and internet affordability and accessibility have gone up 87 percent in the past several years. Facebook, in particular, has changed communications for the country on a fast scale in a way that the governmental infrastructure could not have done on its own. And for many people just now getting up to tech speed in Myanmar, Facebook essentially is the internet, and they have yet to delineate that online news does not always mean real news.

Admittedly, my family found my lost grandma 47 miles from our home within one day thanks to Facebook when the police couldn’t help because they didn’t have computers. Even the president’s office posts official government statements on Facebook. However, as much as Myanmar has leapfrogged in technology, the people there have missed out on the fundamental education around it. It’s that lack of awareness that has allowed hate speech and fake news to spread. Systems for controlling both are needed, though there are teams like Bindez working to mitigate hate speech through NLP and A.I.

“Myanmar President’s Office” official Facebook Page

How people in Myanmar use Facebook is not so different from how everyone else around the world, particularly in the West, uses social media—especially people on their phones while having a casual drink and sharing articles. On both sides, these pieces that portray Myanmar only in black and white are leaving complexity out of the conversation and preventing us from seeing the public in a fuller existence.

With the World Rather Than Against It

People criticizing Dorsey for his choices without having a full grasp on Myanmar are already part of the social media problem. (And by no means is that an endorsement of his privilege.) Sending jabs at him that also singularly condemn Myanmar without understanding the people who live there can be, and is being, perceived with animosity. Telling Dorsey—or anyone—to just not visit Myanmar echoes an isolationist policy that isn’t effective. It’s easy to say that something is wrong and action should be taken, but just saying it doesn’t provide a “what’s next” solution.

Social media and the internet have propelled us to be digital citizens responsible for the state of the world. Swaying the general public’s opinion is important, but it is best done through education and, as U Thant Myint U says, “engaging local sentiment, help[ing] Myanmar move away from an essentialist view of ethnicity, and appreciate the complexities of Myanmar’s big picture.” Simply put, Myanmar is in a place of evolution and needs critical thinking from the global citizenry so it can grow with the world rather than against it. The country has been trying to be a democracy for a mere two years, after more than 190 years of colonialism, military dictatorship, and a semicivilian government.

Illustration: Frederick Burr Opper

Journalists, too, have the same responsibility to act. So much about Myanmar is being hidden by the headlines that its international identity has become nothing but the Rohingya crisis. While there is no doubt an atrocity is happening—with an estimated 43,000 or more missing or dead and hundreds of thousands displaced—and justice must be served, the accusatory language doesn’t foster engagement and dismisses the internal perspectives within the country. As Jeremy Hay of Spaceship Media states, “[As] long as journalism is content to let conflict sit like that, journalism is abdicating the power it has to help people find a way through that conflict.”

There is more you can do and learn so that what you contribute genuinely helps to resolve the problem instead of being mired in perpetual (and often inaccurate) conflict on social media. Choosing to look at the complexity doesn’t mean minimizing everything else. Visit Myanmar if you have the chance, study Myanmar, talk with people from there, work there, be an ally. Step outside your own assumptions. Eating at Burma Superstar isn’t enough.

If you do nothing else, take a moment to think before you post on social media. This isn’t just about Myanmar; it’s about making comments on any context that you don’t have the full story. Ask yourself: Is it true? Do you know the whole situation? Are you asking questions, or are you making a judgment? Is that judgment based on multiple perspectives? Why might others be saying what they’re saying? What are you hoping to achieve by chiming in? Adopting this perspective will help anyone, including those with influence, bring far more important dialogues to the world—and dialogue drives change.


Note: This is an updated version of a previous piece.

Saya Iwasaki

Written by

Always curious, always writing. Culture, Belonging and People Growth at @doordash. Formerly @bitski. MA @stanfordEd.

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