Cite as: Prasse-Freeman, E. (2021). Hate Bait, Micro-publics, and National(ist) Conversations on Burmese Facebook. Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship, 1. https://ijbs.online/?page_id=2824
Social media’s role in violence against Muslims in Myanmar has been emphasized extensively. The often implicit argument is that uncontained ‘hate speech’ circulating across Facebook in a ‘viral’ fashion has incited incidents of intercommunal and mass violence in Myanmar by deceiving an ignorant and credulous public into believing the worst about their Muslim neighbors. While this cannot be dismissed, this article presents a fuller account of Burmese Facebook by exhibiting a wider array of content (messages, memes, and cartoons) and shows how users are able to parse claims, endorse metaphorical (rather than literal) truths behind content, and espouse political orientations, illustrated through the ‘hate bait’ subgenre of texts. Texts so classified do not cast hatred on their objects but associate those objects with hate and danger. Hate bait encourages readers to take an active part in (re)arranging indexical connections between various tokens, specifically taking Muslim subjects of Burma (neighbors, acquaintances, or colleagues who are more or less Burmese) and resignifying them as also tokens of an ostensible global Muslim threat.
In this way, social media has abetted a general project of demonizing Muslims and ratifying mass violence against them by creating the discursive and symbolic environment in which Muslim claims to political membership (and even decent treatment) in Myanmar are rejected. This rejection is made possible by the active participatory role that the technology affords the average user: by circulating warnings about “radical Islam,” a user indexes his/her subjective stance, while also co-producing knowledge of the potential Muslim threat to the nation. The article closes by proposing that ‘micro-publics’ conjoin with a ‘national’ conversation about national identity, bringing average people into a position of generating and ratifying that new identity, a rare and empowering opportunity for subjects long excluded from Myanmar’s ‘public’ sphere.
မြန်မာနိုင်ငံရှိ မူဆလင်များအား အကြမ်းဖက်မှုတွင် လူမှုကွန်ယက် မီဒီယာများ၏ အခန်းကဏ္ဍကို ယခင်ကတည်းက ကျယ်ပြန့်စွာ အလေးပေး ဖော်ပြခဲ့ကြသည်။ သမားရိုးကျ ကောက်ယူကြပုံမှာ မြန်မာ ဖေ့စ်ဘွတ်ခ်လောကတွင် “အမုန်းတရား” ကို အထိန်းအချုပ် မရှိဘဲ တွင်ကျယ်စွာ သုံးစွဲနေခြင်းသည် ယုံလွယ်သော လူထုကို လှည့်ဖြား မှိုင်းတိုက်ကာ မူဆလင် အိမ်နီးချင်းများအပေါ် အဆိုးမြင်မှု ကို ခိုင်မာစေလျက် သွေးထိုးလှုံ့ဆော်မှုကြောင့် ဖြစ်သော အကြမ်းဖက် ဖြစ်ရပ်များ တပြိုင်နက် ပေါ်ထွက်လာသည် ဟူ၍ ဖြစ်သည်။ ထိုသိမှုမျိုးဖြင့် ဆောင်ရွက်နေခြင်းများကို မဖယ်ရှားနိုင်သော အခြေအနေတွင် မြန်မာ ဖေ့စ်ဘွတ်ခ်လောကသားတို့ စကားအသုံး အနှုန်းကို ကပ်ဖဲ့ သုံးစွဲနေကြပုံ၊ (ပကတိ အရှိတရားထက်) ထပ်တူ နှိုင်းဆ ဥပမာပြ အရှိတရားများကို အမှန်တရားသဖွယ် လက်ခံ ယူဆနေကြပုံနှင့် နိုင်ငံရေးဆိုင်ရာ ရှုထောင့်များ တည်ဆောက်ကြ ပုံတို့ကို ဖေ့စ်ဘွတ်ခ်တွင် တွေ့ရသည့်အတိုင်း ဤစာတမ်းက ပြည့်စုံစွာ ဖော်ပြထားပါသည်။ ဤဖြစ်စဉ်ကို ရုပ်လုံးပေါ်စေရန် “အမုန်းထောင် ချောက်” ဟူသော စကားရပ် ခေါ် “အမုန်းစကား” ၏ စကားရပ်ခွဲ တခုအား ဤစာတမ်းက လေ့လာဆန်းစစ်ထားပါသည် “အမုန်းထောင် ချောက်” ဟူသည်မှာ မုန်းရမည့်အရာအပေါ်တွင် အမုန်းတရားကို တိုက်ရိုက်မထားဘဲ၊ မုန်းရမည့်အရာနှင့် ဆက်စပ်နေသော အရာများကို အန္တရာယ်ဟူ၍ သွယ်ဝိုက်၍တွဲဖက်ပေးလိုက်ခြင်းဖြစ်သည်။ ဤနည်းဖြင့် မြန်မာ ဖေ့စ်ဘွတ်ခ် သုံးစွဲသူများကို အမျိုးမျိုးသော ကဏ္ဍများ၊ အထူးသဖြင့် မြန်မာနိုင်ငံရှိ မူဆလင်များ (အိမ်နီးချင်းများ၊ မိတ်ဆွေများ၊ လုပ်ဖော်ကိုင်ဖက်များအား ထိုသူတို့က မြန်မာများ ဟုတ်သည်ဖြစ်စေ၊ မဟုတ်သည်ဖြစ်စေ) အားလုံး အကျုံးဝင်စေလျက်၊ ညွှန်းဆိုစရာ ဆက်စပ်မှုများ (ပြန်လည်) စီစစ်ခြင်းမျိုးတွင် တက်ကြွစွာ ပါဝင်စေရန် နှိုးဆော်ပေးပါသည်။ ထို့ပြင် အကောင်အထည်အားဖြင့် ဖော်ပြရန် မဖြစ်နိုင်သော်လည်း တကယ်ရှိသကဲ့သို့ ထင်ရသော ကမ္ဘာအဝှမ်း မူဆလင် ကြောက်ရွံ့မှုကြီးအဖြစ်ပါ ၎င်းတို့ကို ပြန်လည် ညွှန်းဆို လာစေလေသည်။ မြန်မာ ဖေ့စ်ဘွတ်ခ် သုံးစွဲသူများ၏ “လူ့အဖွဲ့အစည်းငယ်များ” သည် နိုင်ငံ၏ သရုပ်လက္ခဏာဖြစ်သော နိုင်ငံအဆင့် ဆွေးနွေးမှုတွင် ဆက်စပ်ယှက်နွှယ်လာသည်ဖြစ်၍ အသစ်ဖြစ်ပေါ်လာသော သရုပ်လက္ခဏာဖြစ်သည့် မြန်မာလူ ထုအဝန်း အဝိုင်းက ကာလရှည်ကြာစွာ ထုတ်ပယ်ခံထားရသော အပယ်ခံများ အပေါ်ဆက်လက်ဖယ်ကျဉ်ထားနိုင်ရန် ရှားပါး အင်အား ကောင်းလှ သော အခွင့်အရေးတစ်ရပ်ကို သာမန်လူထုက ခေါ်ဆောင် ခြင်း၊ ဆန်းစစ်ခြင်းများ ပြုကြရသည့် အနေအထားသို့ ရောက်ရှိလာ ကြောင်း ဤစာတမ်းက သုံးသပ်ထားပါသည်။
It has become axiomatic that a causal relationship exists between the ‘hate speech’ that circulated on Myanmar social media from 2011 to the time of writing, and events of mass violence up to and including the Rohingya genocide that transpired proximate to that speech. Investigative journalism pieces with unequivocal headlines1 metastasized into journalistic explorations2, ‘hot-take’ style punditry,3 pullulating nongovernmental organization (NGO)/think tank reports,4 and endless academic commentary,5 culminating in a piece de resistance, in which Marzuki Darusman, the chairman of the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, told media that Facebook had played a “determining role” in the genocide, having “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict… within the public”.6 Taken together, the weight of so many mutually reinforcing voices on the topic has allowed it to congeal into conventional wisdom, diffusing into mainstream news shows in the United States, from self-serious Frontline to comedian John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, the latter of which featured the host using a quotation by a Burmese activist that described Facebook as a toilet.
The basic argument, often implicit, in many of these texts is that malign actors, acting either clandestinely or overtly, have capitalized on the affordances of a new technology—Facebook (and the platform’s promotion of the most excretory of human behavior)—to manipulate benighted masses who had access to, but not the competence to adequately maneuver and comprehend, that new technology. The narrative is convenient because it dovetails with identical descriptions of events across the globe—particularly vis-à-vis Russia’s alleged use of social media to undermine the USA’s 2016 elections7—and nests within hoary dystopian interpretations of rapid digital advances.
The story told here is admittedly compelling and the instinct that social media has borne some relation to the racist violence against Muslims in Myanmar since 2011’s opening seems apt. However, the particular relationship between the variables (social media causing violence) has remained undertheorized and poorly explained, perhaps in the rush to establish the general correlation. Not only is Myanmar’s social media relationship with ultimate outcomes (genocide, mass violence) simply asserted, rather than demonstrated, but any effects on intermediate variables that may have in turn precipitated those heinous ends—specifically, the altering of collective subjectivities from tolerant to hateful, thereby making them receptive to mass violence waged by the state—are not isolated and developed. Did social media somehow create the hate that flowed through it? If not, if the hate emerged from elsewhere, we might ask—after inquiring into why it emerged—whether social media had a role in turning it into a more potent poison than it already would have been. Such lines of inquiry remain unexplored.
The following article addresses these questions directly, arguing that the hate speech argument summarized above relies on a central presumption about Burmese Facebook users: that they are ignorant, poorly educated, and hence more or less incapable of critical thought, thus susceptible both to hoaxes and then to outbreaks of spasmodic violence (either in physical or symbolic terms) befitting their benighted status. The article will critique that assumption, first presenting research on how Facebook users themselves parse texts, and then presenting an array of texts that have circulated on Burmese Facebook that complicate the picture of Burmese Facebook as a simple ‘echo chamber’ of hate. Central to this argument is the insistence that discussions of race and ethnicity in Burmese social media must be disaggregated into distinct types. These range from the spurious language or hoaxes that directly attempt to mobilize immediate violence; to hate speech, which directly demeans and denies the humanity of various minorities; to a third underappreciated kind: ‘hate bait,’ defined here as attempts to politicize race by (re)arranging indexical relations between various social emblems, such that the actions of specific Muslims elsewhere (tokens) are taken to be iconic and representative of behavior of all Muslims (qua type), so that potential actions of Muslims in Burma are made into further tokens of that common type. This builds interpretive frameworks (e.g., Muslims as potentially, if not inherently, violent), that compel people to resignify former associations, hence justifying eventual violence.
To develop this argument, the article first discusses the inadequacies of current versions of the hate-speech-caused-genocide thesis, analyzing the kinds of texts that have circulated across Burma’s social mediascapes and exploring hate bait through specific examples from Burmese media. The article concludes by considering how social media users have formed ‘micro-publics’ to which they contribute and hypothesizes that those micro-publics link with ‘macro’ conversations, allowing average people to feel like they are contributing to a re-formation of the contours of the Myanmar nation.
Did Facebook Cause Genocide? Disaggregating Hate Speech
Hate Speech as Causing Violence?
The ‘strong’ definition of hate speech—as speech that leads directly to “imminent lawless action”8—has been mobilized with regard to Myanmar in assertions, such as in Darusman’s, that social media itself had a “determining role” in Myanmar’s 2017 ethnic cleansing campaign. However, such theories have been only declared rather than substantiated. In the Rohingya case, given that the military prosecuted the mass violence, the only logical explanation that follows is that either generals designing strategy or low-ranking soldiers carrying it out were incited to deviate from either security concerns or following orders, respectively, to carry out atrocities. This is certainly possible. Yet, as military historian Andrew Selth points out:
If the commander-in-chief, Tatmadaw headquarters, the Western Region commander, LID [Light Infantry Division] commanders, and MPF [Myanmar Police Force] headquarters gave strict orders that atrocities were not to occur, then there would most likely be far fewer cases reported. From all the evidence emerging from the refugee camps, however, such orders have never been given.9
Selth acknowledges that command-and-control can break down—soldiers can go rogue, as it were—but cites evidence that Rohingya abuses took place on such scale and in such patterned form as to suggest a systematic program.10 Knowledge of generals’ objectives and psyches is far too incomplete to argue plausibly that they were affected by hate speech (especially given that, as Wai Moe shows in this IJBS special issue, they were creating much of it).
Proponents of the strong version of the theory, however, often describe other, ‘smaller’ cases—ones that were either thwarted or resulted in smaller amounts of violence—as a way to establish a basic model, implying that it could have also been at work in the vastly larger-scale case of Rohingya genocide. Multiple discussions of mob violence in Mandalay insist that social media played a catalytic role, describing how a rape hoax circulated on Facebook was followed by—and correlated with—an eruption of mob violence that led to multiple deaths.11 Three problems are apparent with the argument, however. The first is the issue of the counterfactual: those machinating to instigate internecine violence have done so effectively in the past in Myanmar without needing social media.12 The second, related issue is mis-inferred causality: reports assert that social media was the independent variable leading to violence, or that the government’s decision to sever access to the internet “put a stop to the clashes”, but both these claims are difficult to determine; further, the ultimate legal conviction of five people for conspiracy to foment the riot—combined with the fact that not all participants in the riot reportedly learned about the putative offense online—indicate that social media was epiphenomenal.13 Third is the issue of scale: the two deaths pale in comparison to the thousands in the Rohingya expulsion.
This relates to another oft-mentioned case: the 9/11 Facebook Messenger mass message hoax that ‘warned’ Buddhists of impending Muslim violence even as it did the same for Muslims about imminent Buddhist attacks.
The incident became memorable not for its success—no deaths resulted from the circulating messages—but because Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in an interview with Vox.com, attributed the incident’s resolution to the vigilance of his ‘system’, only for an open letter from Myanmar civil society watchdogs15 to point out that (a) they were his ‘system’; (b) they were not resourced or equipped to be systematic in their monitoring; and (c) the mass message circulated for four days before it was even flagged, after which point it took even longer for it to be removed. Yet, despite the bad optics for Facebook, the reality remains that notwithstanding the inability for Facebook’s ‘systems’ to adequately identify and stop the spread of the hate speech, the effects of the hoax were minor.
Hate Speech as Resubjectivizing?
While direct claims that social media caused violence have gone unsubstantiated, other versions of the argument have implied an indirect causality in which social media hate speech incited violence by making Rohingya in particular, and Muslims in general, into objects of dehumanization. Such arguments implicitly draw on analytical frameworks, such as Susan Benesch’s conception of “dangerous speech”, in which speech has the “potential to catalyze collective violence” when it (1) targets a group, (2) either demeans the group as sub-human or polluting or suggests it constitutes a threat, and (3) contains a call for action.16
Examples of such dangerous speech abound. The C4ADS report includes multiple examples, such as in figure 2.4, in which a threat is identified and a call to action is made.17 A report by Pen Myanmar also includes dozens of examples,18 such as figures 2.1 and 2.2, which make direct calls to banish Muslims or to not socially associate with them. Others feature Muslims as dogs or other animals, in literal attempts to dehumanize, while countless more invoke the Myanmar Immigration Department slogan “The earth will not swallow a race to extinction, but another race will.” Harn Lay, long-term satirist of the regime,19 has one of the more hateful cartoons in figure 2.3 given its particularly graphic representation of weaponized procreation, in which reproduction rates, illegal migration, and Rohingya victimhood are linked.
But what has been the collective effect of such hate? The Times investigative report introduced above (Mozur, 2018a) and elaborated in Wai Moe (this issue) suggests a great deal. They uncovered a massive military program devoted to filling Burmese Facebook with hate, hoaxes, and racist nationalism: 700 soldiers working in shifts infiltrated innocuous public Facebook pages (such as those for celebrities) with such content. This reporting confirmed the existence of an amount of ‘dark matter’ operating behind the scenes that many had long suspected,24 and when taken together with data analysis done on Twitter,25 a picture emerged of a vast effort by the state to influence the minds of Burmese netizens.
While the existence of the program has been established, the effects of this effort have remained more difficult to assess. This is firstly because the Times reporters do not delve into the specifics of how these trolls constructed their claims. And while other studies26 have observed the actions of what appear to be fake accounts—so identified by the thinness of their personal detail (from profile picture to friends) and how they insert identical comments into the threads of multiple different pages, attempting to seed particular political messages (the impotence of the democratic political; the threat of Muslims; support of the military)—neither those other studies nor the Times article have yet established the consequences of these efforts.27 For instance, Mozur, the lead journalist on the Times investigative report, made in a subsequent tweet a claim about the putative impact of the uncovered military program: “Several researchers estimated two-thirds of the hate speech, hoaxes, [and] vitriol began with the military”.28 Moreover, he also conceded that “far more study is needed” and fell back on the equivocal, “everyone believed it made ethnic divisions in the country far worse”—which stands in stark contrast to the conclusion screamed from the headline. Mozur here inadvertently points to a larger issue in this literature: none of the reports on social media in Myanmar provide insights into the entire universe of hate speakers – were those 700 military men a drop in a much larger bucket, and hence merely magnified messages already circulating in society? 29 Or did they truly change the ecology, meaningfully deepening the levels of hate circulating online?30
Hate Bait: Rumors, Conspiracy Theories, Reassessments
One reason why such questions mostly go unposed is that the effects of these trolls and hateful Buddhist clerics are taken as self-evident, given the presumed nature of those whom they are manipulating. Here the social-media-caused-genocide arguments rely on a theory of Burmese social media dominated by the trope of the credulous and gullible Burmese user. This user is incapable of differentiating fake from real news and is particularly susceptible to hate speech because of his/her general ignorance. The insistence that a decimated education system leads to an entire society of people untrained in “how to think”31 is promoted in academic discourse,32 in academic blogs,33 in casual discourse,34 and by Facebook itself.35 Such arguments never explore, however, the multiple domains in which ‘education’ occurs, not engaging through ethnographic study, for instance, Gramsci’s famous argument that “organic intellectuals” emerge from the “education” generated through material existence.36
Instead, the argument is blithely adopted by the social media analysts as the perfect (and perfectly convenient) explanation for why the masses have been fooled by hate speech.37 The C4ADS report is emblematic of much commentary when it writes that while “much of the information” that circulates on Burmese Facebook “is false or taken out of context”, it “is still regarded as true among many in Myanmar’s still relatively unsophisticated media audience, who, after decades of media isolation, often lack an understanding of basic media biases and photo manipulation techniques”.38 The Myanmar Center for Responsible Business also makes the link explicit, writing:
Myanmar’s education system, which is based on rote learning, rather than critical thinking and analysis, does not generally build the skills needed to debate the ethics of the complex societal issues which arise from ICTs (information and communications technology), and identify appropriate rights-based solutions.39
Here, the Myanmar people are presented in the main as innocent and agency-less victims of the current changes: given their recent emergence from military rule, they have been ill-equipped to manage the dual challenges of learning the wiles of both the new technology and a new political system—both of which allow for immensely greater freedom of expression than previous modes. As the Fact-Finding Mission puts it, “as elsewhere in the world, the internet and social media platforms have enabled the spread of this kind of hateful and divisive rhetoric. The Myanmar context is distinctive, however, because of the relatively new exposure of the Myanmar population to the Internet and social media”.40 Hence, it is the Facebook “monster”—so described by United Nations Human Rights special rapporteur Yanghee Lee—that has chomped up and spat out Myanmar’s polity following the reckless ‘move fast and break stuff’ modus operandi of the company’s founders. The monster does not, alternatively, come from within.
And yet, it is not simple leftist posturing to insist on the Gramscian argument for examining how normal people’s daily lives taught them how to make sense of data constructed about their worlds. Specifically, the presumptions that Burma’s masses are passive receptacles to hate speech are complicated when we consider their ability to parse and often reject the military regime’s propaganda during the years of military domination. Jennifer Leehey’s work on information during that era shows that the regime did not try to convince people, and the people did not allow themselves to be convinced:
piecThe authorities are much more concerned with producing a facsimile of public opinion than with convincing people, affecting their inner lives in some way. […] For the most part, I would emphasize, people pay little attention: newspapers go unread, and TVs are turned down during the news and turned up when the Chinese movies come on afterwards.41
While more research must be conducted to tease out how that propaganda which was explicitly enregistered and metapragmatically marked as propaganda (texts, such as those that described Aung San Suu Kyi as a traitor, that were not meant to persuade but to call attention to the sovereign prerogative to not persuade) interacted with the more banal information flowing from the state (such as that which presented Muslims as dangerous as a by-product of coverage of the Global War on Terror)42, it is noteworthy how rarely analysts today have conceived of the military years as at least in part a master course in debunking fake news, with public as pupil.43
Sophisticated Users, Sophisticated Texts
A closer examination of the texts circulating on Burmese Facebook is hence warranted. First, while some surveys of ‘dangerous speech’ find nearly all of it to be directed at Muslims,44 it is relevant to mention that the Pen report finds hate speech being leveled against multiple objects: not simply religious and ethnic minorities (Muslims, and particularly Rohingya), but political parties (both the National League for Democracy and the Union Solidarity and Development Party), the military, ethnic armed groups, political activists, female politicians, and even ‘the people’ itself have all been objects of hate speech. In my own research on and catalogue of popular Burmese cartoons, I collected dozens of cartoons that defamed and demeaned the Chinese in similar ways: as stealing resources and women, colonizing the country, and leading to penury for Burmese people.
Moreover, Chinese and South Asian / Muslim caricatures are often included together in cartoons that critique the special privileges exacted by undeserving ‘foreigners’.49
Myanmar’s most famous living cartoonist, Maung Maung Fountain, whose complex work will be discussed below, features a parrot in a tea-shop squawking out complaints about Chinese, ‘kalar’ (Muslims), and the police in the same breath as it intones tea orders, implying that such complaints are dreadfully common and banal.
The general point of this section is to show that not only do Chinese experience much of the same kind of symbolic derogation as Muslims, and not only are Chinese and Muslims often presented together as equals in the exploitation of the country, but there are also texts that support these groups, critiquing chauvinism implicitly, or in figure 7, nationalist movements explicitly.
Burmese Facebook even has its own ‘shitposting’ community. A mild qualitative difference can be marked between shitposting and ‘trolling’ – in which the latter advances an attack on a direct object, trying to destroy or torment it, out of which “amusement is derived from another person’s anger”,57 whereas shitposting is designed to observe the ludicrous and bizarre in the social world, and then play with representative signs (reinterpret them, comment upon them, juxtapose them) in creative ways so as to build a community of others who appreciate the play.58 Burma’s young shitposting scene organizes itself around Burmese Uncensored Memes-I (BUMi), a Facebook group with 100,000 followers;59 the group has a terms of membership that includes progressive values, with prohibitions against “sexual Harassment; Sexist and heternomie bullshit; Distasteful 13 Year old Sex jokes; racism, Islamophobia, fascism, pro-war, anti-LGBTQ; Rape Joke… Porn or Memepification [sic] of revenge porn related, Celebrity bullshit, Inappropriate screenshots”—violation of which can earn a member a temporary or permanent ban.
Burma’s shitposting scene made international headlines for a post (figure 8) declaring “WE NO NEED COFFEE ANNAN HE GO AWAY”. Kofi Annan, then the chairperson of an independent commission on the Rakhine State violence, had been the object of racist scorn by Burmese Facebook (figure 9) below, and the meme in question added an additional layer of ignorance by using Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman’s photograph rather than Annan’s.
The meme was picked up by American news service Associated Press as an example of Burma’s ignorant racists, after which the meme’s page announced the hoax, a fact that also became news.62 The effect of the meme was to simultaneously poke fun at Burma’s nationalists – by designing a text that used excess to call attention to their general ignorance – and to note the willingness of international press to see only that ignorance.
Reinterpreting the ‘Hate’
By acknowledging the existence of other such possibilities in texts circulating on Burmese Facebook, the interpretation of particular exemplars of hate speech morphs in turn. Take an example in the C4ADS report:
Pieces of misinformation can border on absurdity. One post depicts ‘Bengalis as cannibals’, using fairly obvious fake pictures of ‘human butcher shops’ that were originally from a video game marketing stunt in London. This post was ‘liked’ over 9,100 times and shared almost 40,000 times, as of October 2015.63
While C4ADS implies that liking and sharing serves an epistemological function (in which Burmese Facebook users assess the truth value of a statement and then share it to inform others), this is only one possible interpretation, foreclosing on the possibility that Myanmar people understand and make liberal and creative use of metaphor. Specifically, here the report presumes that the users take the story of Bengalis as cannibals as literal, rather than a distillation of a ‘deeper’ truth: that Bengalis (and Muslims more generally) devour other people (and, as we are constantly reminded, the Immigration Department slogan is about a race swallowing another race, after all).
In another example, a Facebook user with a Burmese name posted an entire fake New York Times story, including fake quotes from multiple local imams, ‘uncovering’ the extensive penetration of Rohingya militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) into Rohingya villages (hence establishing the entire Rohingya population as legitimate object for military expulsion). The level of sophistication is reflected all the way down to the syntax:
Excerpts from the interview by New York Times investigative journalist with the refugees in Bangladesh revealed how widespread the ARSA tentacles had reached in nearly every Rohingya village and how intertwined the villagers are with ARSA militancy often with the local cleric as the coordinator.
When challenged by readers to produce the link to the actual Times article, the user admitted the ruse, arguing that honesty is not necessary in defending one’s country.
Noteworthy here is how what seems to be an effort to establish an epistemological claim (by using the world’s paper of record, going to the effort of making up names of imams, giving them quotes, etc.) is disavowed. While this could simply be a way of the user insisting s/he had not been shamed into silence (reinforced by the inclusion of the three winking emojis), it also suggests that the aesthetics of truth, the construction of a truth that is deeper than facts, is what is more important here.
Even posts that more directly approach the theme of protection of the country against external threats often use elision, humor, and irony to distance themselves from the theme of violent defense. In figure 12, in a meme that was shared over a quarter of a million times from 2016 to 2018, generated 3,200 comments, and accumulated 50,000 ‘likes,’ five young women stand side-by-side across a dirt path while bearing long knives and staring (faux) menacingly at the camera. Text above them declares, “Do not come and insult our race, our religion, and our religious community!” The text below reads, “If you are real Myanmar, share it!”
The meme incorporates a number of features that makes it a successful member of the genre. In addition to its use of Burmese internet slang (using “shey”, the vernacular loan-word for “share”) the text poses several vertiginous juxtapositions to amuse the viewer. First, the women themselves construct a wonderfully polysemous sign: as Burmese women they are tokens of the icon of the threatened nation—the source of racial purity and the guarantor of racial propagation, both of which are under direct threat from foreigners intent on miscegenation. The four recently enacted race and religion protection laws65 explicitly make the women’s body the site of legal protection and control, indexing racial and nationalist anxiety with women’s bodies—as in the above meme. However, the specific bodies of the women in the meme, brandishing weapons and gathering together in strength, defy that image of passive victimhood. In this sense they indicate that the threat is so great that even women will defend the nation; but in so doing they indict the machismo masculinity as unnecessary. Second, while some of the women appear resolute, others smirk with metapragmatic recognition: together they are simultaneously joking and serious, providing a mimesis of the social media consumer who is both serious about defending the nation even with violence and is yet reticent about articulating that desire out loud. Such features of play allow distance from actual invocations to violence while also allowing viewers to partake in it.
Further, we can consider Maung Maung Fountain’s infamous “Me First” cartoon, in which a faceless, nearly naked (suggesting culture-less) individual labeled “boat-person” jumps in front of a line of people adorned in clothing styles representing various Myanmar ethnicities, declaring that he is first (figure 13).
The cartoon generated condemnation from those who objected to its racist imagery, becoming the topic of at least one article67 and a central feature in others.68 The cartoon, as might be expected, spurred alternative interpretations from Burmese audiences: Ye Ni, the Burmese edition editor who approved the cartoon, told the Financial Times that, “I understand the message that the cartoonist wants to say: Myanmar is a very fragile country with many other issues—civil war, economic development—not only the Rohingya issue”.69 Kyaw Swa Moe, co-founder of the Irrawaddy, Burma’s independent paper of record—which has lent its imprimatur to many of the hate baiting cartoons circulating widely across Myanmar cyberspace—differentiated the Irrawaddy’s reporting from that which the international community is interested in, saying “we are trying to portray the real situation of Myanmar, and also the very complex situation of Rakhine in this issue”.70 Maung Maung Fountain himself explained the cartoon by saying, “I meant to say that some people want more and more rights and opportunities”.71
Such commentary points beyond the dismissal of the Rohingya and their putative scheming to the broader national context—and it is here that a critique of the entire system of exclusion, or rather deferred inclusion, for everyone in the country emerges. By presenting Burmese people as standing in a line, the cartoon suggests that people have to wait to get justice or recognition, and that their belonging is itself postponed. It also presents slightly more privileged subjects as having established a barrier keeping out the Rohingya. And given that, as just mentioned, signs are polysemous, even if the cartoonist was actively attempting to be racist, the text still enacts these other semiotic effects—as relayed to me by Burmese readers of the cartoon.
The fact that entire articles were written about foreigners’ responses to the cartoon stands as a way of substantiating an additional point made by many Burmese social users: in the policing of content as ‘hate speech’, important political commentary and even actions can be foreclosed. A piece by the cartoonist Joker that ran in a local newspaper in 2017 included the perceived threat to the nation, and then incorporated the ostensible silencing of those calling attention to that threat (figure 14).
It is here that we can turn to the broader discussion of ‘hate bait’ and the political mobilization messages that I believe are the most critical aspects of Burmese Facebook. As Matt Schissler, Matt Walton, and Phyu Phyu Thi put it:
By recognizing the narrative of Muslim threat as a ‘master narrative’ in Myanmar at present, we also recognize that hate speech is not necessary in order to construct a narrative of Muslim threat. In our interviews, respondents expressed anti-Muslim sentiments not through overtly hateful or dehumanizing speech, but rather through reference to ostensibly reasonable and credible sources such as international news coverage of global events.73
Indeed, much of the nationalist rhetoric on Burmese Facebook cannot be construed as ‘hate speech’ per se. Rather, Schissler underscores that “news from Muslim countries… (is) regularly discussed in Burmese on Facebook”—in which “atrocities by ISIS in Syria and Iraq; abductions and murders committed by Boko Haram; violence in the Central African Republic” are relayed—in one sense “just news stories, neither false nor the virulent hate speech that attracts international media attention”, and yet, “they nonetheless support a presentation of Islam as violent and threatening”.74 In other words, the predominance of the rhetoric does not qualify as hate speech in the sense that it rarely (a) conveys new information about the actions of (b) an identifiable enemy against which (c) violent response is incited. Instead, most of the content should be understood as ‘hate bait,’ in which readers are beckoned or encouraged to draw conclusions about local conditions by assembling indexical connections between items as part of broader processes of arranging ‘orders of indexicality’,75 such that various metonyms are attached together so as to ultimately bind general phenomena or specific actions elsewhere to political circumstances in Burma, so as to construct stereotypes of both object and subject (the sharer of the text). As conveyed in the examples above, the phenomenon can be conceptually rendered as follows:
actions of specific Muslims elsewhere (tokens)
behavior of Muslims (qua type)
potential actions of Muslims in Burma (as tokens of type)
Figures 15 and 16 serve as useful illustrations of this phenomenon. The first was cited in the Pen report76 and presents images of bloody incidents as representative of Islam writ large; the second adorns an article in the Ma Ba Tha journal Tha-gee Thway (“Buddha’s Blood”) entitled “Nationalism and Human Rights” that advances a spirited critique against the hypocrisies of the human rights regime while elaborating on the putative aggression of Islam. Figure 16’s image itself contains the innocuous description “A sight of a punishment under Sharia law in Sudan”.77 When posted on Tha-gee Thway’s Facebook page (since taken down), the image itself was free to be circulated and re-textualized. The dry description of the evocative scene illustrates an additional difference between hate speech and hate bait genres: whereas hate speech generates a response of a similar qualitative type (meeting violence with violence; contesting the hatefulness of Muslims with Buddhist hate), hate bait performs decorous civilized conduct, reiterating the distinction between ostensible Buddhist sophistication and Muslim baseness.
These texts work to compel Myanmar subjects themselves to reorganize their understanding of the world. Schissler et al. convey the compelling finding that informants who identified Muslims as an active threat to Myanmar nonetheless described this identification as a realization—i.e., a new perspective—and that in the past, inter-religious conditions between the groups were amicable.80 While there existed historical ambient animosity between Burmese (as type) and Muslims (as type), semiotic linkages with past animosity were often dampened to the point of non-existence. But now, in the context of political-economic dislocations and general social upheaval associated with ‘transition’, right-wing interventions are recalling historical tensions and reanimating texts (songs, slogans) from those earlier periods of animosity, redrawing an unbroken line dividing the communities.81 They are encouraging people to access these previous chains, revivify them, and hence resignify their everyday interactions with Muslims in these newly activated interpretive contexts.
For instance, Schissler shows how, in the context of communal tension during a period of rumors of imminent Muslim violence in western Yangon in 2013, a group of Burmese friends found their Muslim neighbor’s status as part of their group suddenly ambiguous: “Htoo Lay interrupted another friend at the table and ended the conversation abruptly – our friend Tin Win was approaching with his wife and son. Tin Win is Muslim, his wife is Buddhist; the table looked at me with eyes full of pointed significance”. 82 Before this period of tension, Tin Win inhabited a token of one type (neighbor, Myanmar person, etc.); here, he was inserted into a different indexical chain: Muslim, token of common type of dangerous Muslims who want to destroy the nation. This is perhaps not a simple process of recodification, in which the previous set of associations is subsumed, completely effaced by the new indexical chain: hence the ambiguity conveyed in Schissler’s ethnographic rendering, in which the actors do not know quite what to make of their Muslim neighbor (and it is to Schissler’s credit as an ethnographer that he allows the ambiguity to remain unresolved, as he seems to sense that it remained that way for his interlocutors). Here, while the previous set of signs (actual camaraderie, friendship, manifest non-violence over thousands of previous interactions) is not fully resignified as a lie or subterfuge, it is at least put into question: Tin Lin may continue to operate consistently with his previous behavior, but given this other set of associations, it might be beyond his control, his fundamental irrefragable Muslim-ness (as an overpowering essence) might emerge to betray the better angels of his nature. Or at the very least, to be a good citizen, protector of the community, it is incumbent for his friends to at least publicly perform such vigilance.
As this anecdote suggests, conspiracy theories fit within the hate bait framework, in that they compel people to rearrange previous associations, so as to entertain and remain vigilant to the possibility of alternative trajectories of causality as governing the true organization of social life. Burmese Facebook is, unsurprisingly, full of such tropes. The United Nations, previously an arbiter of truth, is reimagined as being run by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Likewise, the United States, long Burma’s savior, is reimagined as a cynical foe, exaggerating the Rohingya crisis as part of a Great Game-style containment strategy vis-à-vis China:83 posts with Rohingya leaders posing with US elites (such as ex-President George W Bush) are circulated as evidentiary of collusion in broader conspiracy to take over Myanmar. It should be added that the National League for Democracy is implicated in the same field of associations, as Rohingya or Muslims are presented as an agent of pollution in which simple proximity leads to political infection.84 Behind many of these imaginaries is a lurking Muslim—identifiable by markers of militancy, piety, or radicalism—who funds or otherwise influences global procedures (figure 17).
Nesting within these broader conspiracy theories about Islamists seeking world domination are specific localized examples—particularly of wealthy Muslims paying Burmese co-religionists for every additional Buddhist bride taken, or plans by Bangladesh specifically and the Muslim world in general to use the pathetic images of encamped Rohingya to generate international sympathy and resources that can be redeployed (such as through bribing corrupt state officials) to colonize Myanmar territory. Prominent monks, for their part, circulate descriptions of their dreams, conveying ominous visions of territorial displacement or religious annihilation. Hence, where the explicit conspiracies provide specific detail, the monks’ vaguer narratives serve to undergird the general sentiment in trusted and revered sources. Here Aung San Suu Kyi’s shameful line, “Global Muslim power is very great and certainly, that is a perception in many parts of the world and in our country as well”86 can be perceived as functionally similar. Suu Kyi here draws legitimacy from the rest of the world—and as Schissler shows,87 Burmese believers form bonds of solidarity in bigotry with “Islamophobes and Holocaust deniers” the world over, while those more skeptical of the conspiracies and their full logics and implications can at least recognize that the same concern is shared globally.
What is a “Like”, Anyway?
Hence, rather than being purely epistemologically driven, meant to convey information about the world, we might instead perceive social media behavior as socially and politically determined or at least partially motivated/inflected: Burmese Facebook members are not just consumers of data but active participants consciously arranging themselves in relation to the political content of particular messages, imbricating themselves within networks of other participants.
This conscious process became apparent when I met with technology NGOs in Yangon who deployed teams of monitors to track and assess social media content. I inquired as to whether they had ‘mapped’ the networks of hate speech or and nationalist rhetoric, attempting to determine the parameters of the hate bait social network—particularly in terms of nodes in nested networks: how did messages circulate? Were there ‘influencers’ with tens of thousands of followers magnifying certain messages? The staff relayed that unlike in other contexts (for instance the Middle East’s ‘Twitter Revolution’, so-called for Twitter’s role in ostensibly aiding protesters in Iran’s Green Revolution and Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising to communicate information and generate support), Burmese Facebook users do not simply forward content, rather they copy/paste the content and then make an entirely new post, often citing the source of info (‘source: internet’) before grafting on their own content. This makes it difficult to trace the provenance of messages in the efficient ways favored by quantitative sociology.
Yangon tech firm staff interpreted this phenomenon as the Burmese Facebook user having determined that new posts will attract more likes than forwards – that users have figured out a key aspect of the way the system works, have got a “feel for the algorithm”.88 In this sense the users are conducting a ‘semiotics of the “like”’ and have determined that it is phatic: an index of how many eyeballs come to rest upon a post. But if we assume a ‘like’ is not only phatic but also affirmative (both “emotive”—calling attention to the liker—and “conative”—focusing attention on the recipient —to use Roman Jakobson’s terms), then we reorient our focus away from the spreading of a particular message, and to the subjectivity of the sender. Then we can begin to think of what is being affirmed: not only the post and its message, but the laborer himself, as the one who has invested the nationalist labor in which the person creates his own post not simply to spread the message more effectively but to get more likes for his subjective stance (this also indicates the importance of paying close attention to how Burmese Facebook users themselves give meanings to signs such as ‘likes,’ something that can be accomplished through ethnographies of social media).89 Social media participants are marking their subjective stance: the kind of person who would protect the nation, even as they co-produce, actively participate in, that defense of the nation.90
Hence, particularly in this environment in which there is an absence of public faith in standard sources of data, based on longstanding91 and enduring92 distrust of elite media, individuals are interpellated to assemble and reinforce various semiotic ligatures to construct common narratives about the world. What many of these accounts demonstrate is how little trust there is of any sources—and so when people share things, they do so if it comes from someone they are aligned with (a religious figure, a community leader) in what can be called “provisional belief”. In this context, where the actual epistemological truth value of statements is always subject to revision, what takes precedence is the alignment, the choice of what to believe.93 (The importance of these networks throws the mass messenger hoax described above —the hoax that Facebook did not have the systems in place to thwart—into critical relief: when a user received a message from a name/number s/he did not recognize, it is likely they were not only more suspicious but less likely to feel called to join).
Hence, if the internet is the terrain, users construct the infrastructure: embedding themselves into the routes of nationalism, indicating that one can get there through them, and get to other like-minded nationalists as well. Hence, in a fractally recursive way—from elites’ networks to villagers’—people do not only consume nationalism but produce it. And this why the more subtle nationalist arguments in hate bait are insidiously effective: they require a certain amount of engagement. This engagement, and the mass participation of micro-publics, allows a new theorization of the ‘virality’ metaphor: not in its now-classic sense of a sign’s rapid reproduction, circulation, and saturation of a network, but rather virality as viral load: the repetition of the sign from multiple sources that produces an accretion of the shared elements of that sign, leading to a rearrangement of common sense around those elements.
Conclusion: New Public Conversations
From the beginning of Facebook’s adoption in Myanmar, reporting emerged on the particularly political nature of its use. Whereas the social networking platform had come to dominate many other parts of the world by providing avenues for endless pet photos and individual expressions of narcissism, in Burma it included—in addition to those things, certainly—a deeper socio-political inflection, often creating the news in the country as much as simply providing a space for reflection upon it. As early as 2013, for instance, journalist Yen Snaing highlighted the positive political opportunities provided by the space, featuring crowd-funding initiatives for charity work and an opening vignette in which a betel seller on the streets of Bago identified 93-year-old former freedom fighter Thakin Hla Kyaing begging at Pegu Bridge and used Facebook to raise the equivalent of 10,000 USD for him.94 The article also contrasts these edifying initiatives to observe the fraught nature of the platform, as hate speech thrived in an environment in which it could not be tracked, given the prevalence of anonymous accounts.
But the Hla Kyaing crowd-sourcing stands as more than simply an example of ‘local’ uses of a global technology: it also had national implications. The Facebooker who identified Hla Kyaing not only harnessed the platform to raise funds, but he created news of genuine, while mild, historical resonance (re-presenting to the Myanmar public the last living member of the independence era). The fact that this story could be told speaks to a certain thinness of critical institutions in Myanmar: both the state, and its inability to provide for its war heroes, and the under-capacitated media, in which such stories could be fallen on by a road-side betel seller. The incident indexes an openness to Burma’s national story itself.
This article concludes by proposing an argument for why social media is such a novel space in Myanmar, conjoining the virality argument introduced above with the question of why this kind of hate has emerged at this particular historical juncture. Social media not only allows for active participation in localized discursive networks where one’s words and opinions matter, but as the example above shows, contains the potential to link with ‘national’ conversations.95 We can use Benedict Anderson’s theory of print capitalism and nationalism,96 but go beyond the heuristic of “the imagined community” to focus on Anderson’s implicit semiotic argument: collectivities of certain linguistic practices become infrastructural for development of new political communities, by developing mutual joint attention around a new object—the nation.97 The argument is that while Anderson perhaps oversold his concept,98 experiences such as the current Burmese one perhaps realize it adequately for the first time. First, cartoons, memes, and other texts with high ratios of images to content are more easily circulatable than their seventeenth-century cousins (the novel and the newspaper), as the former display a high degree of ‘platform promiscuity’: a Burmese cartoon will be published first in print, to then be circulated on digital platforms, to be then re-presented at festivals, at rallies, on t-shirts, etc., producing a virile virality.
Second, and more importantly, given the distrust of elite media, combined with the new affordances of digital platforms, social media opens a space for joint-participation in the production of the symbolic material that will re-form the nation. This kind of participation stands as an intensified version of “unisonance”, the term Anderson used to describe the collective effervescence felt in singing along to a national anthem. But here not only do people reproduce the nation in mimesis, they produce it in the first instance. To put this in Erving Goffman’s terms,99 where those singing a national anthem are animating a text that someone else wrote, in this case, the anthem itself is written and refined by the singers of the song: they are by turns co-authors and ratifiers of the nation’s new texts, installing an immediate relationship between themselves and the nation’s narratives.
This construction of the nation compels a final reflection on what can be done about the hate bait scourge. While it is laudable that academics are looking for solutions, by encouraging “training” either to heighten “citizenship skills”, “communication skills”,100 or to promote “genuine religious education”,101 such a focus mis-appreciates the ways in which knowledge is being co-produced in Myanmar through the application of collective labor. These participatory aspects, and the affect they generate, help explain why epistemological interventions (about truth of information) are impotent to dampen the xenophobia forged online and offline (and in between). Perhaps one hope is that the memers, the shitposters, and the progressive cartoonists will invest alternative narratives of the nation with the same kind of affect. If so, onward, to the digital barracks!
1 Such as: McLaughlin, 2018; Mozur, 2018a.
2 For example: Reed, 2018; Safi & Hogan, 2018; Stecklow, 2018.
3 Solon, 2018.
4 Pen Myanmar, 2015; C4ADS, 2016; Justice Trust, 2015; Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, 2015; Paladino, 2018.
5 Alex Aung Khant, 2017; Jaeck, 2018; Kinseth, 2018.
6 Miles, 2018.
7 Noted by some Burma commentators (Dowling, 2019; Jaeck, 2018).
8 Quoted in Benesch, 2014, p. 21.
9 Selth, 2018, p. 33.
10 Ibid, pp. 27-30.
11 CA4DS, 2016; McLaughlin, 2018; Ye Myint Win, 2018.
12 Justice Trust, 2015, p. 1.
13 A Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) report is representative of the inadequate inference of causality. It writes about the right-wing monk-led ‘969’ movement: “969 is widely alleged to have helped fuel the violence. A report by the NGO Justice Trust that examined the ‘hidden hands’ behind the June 2012 Rakhine violence found a ‘recurrent pattern,’ with 969 sermons preceding anti-Muslim riots,” (2016, p. 6). But the cited Justice Trust report identifies its “main finding” as “the Mandalay riots were designed to appear as a spontaneous outbreak of mob violence, but in fact were perpetrated by an organized gang of armed men brought in from outside Mandalay to enact a pre-determined script written and stage-managed by hidden hands for political ends” (Justice Trust, 2015, p. 1). In other words, the citation did not allege that 969 fueled the violence, but rather suggests the opposite, or at least something more complex: conspirators orchestrating the hate speech and then ultimately carrying out the violence themselves are the cause, and at most social media provided the discursive context that conspirators could point to (‘look at what has happened!’), “providing the perfect cover story to deflect attention from the dirty work of hidden hands” (Justice Trust, 2015, p. 4). For explanations suggesting that the fascist monk Wirathu orchestrated the attacks, see Min Zin, 2015, p. 389.
14 9/11 Mass Messenger Hoax message, as cited in Phandeeyar et al., 2018.
16 Benesch’s work (2012) as discussed in the Burmese context by Fink (2018).
17 C4ADS, 2016.
18 Pen Myanmar, 2015.
19 Brooten et al, 2019.
20 In English, “Get Out Muslim”, and in Burmese, “Because you are living here, our country is not at peace” (Pen Myanmar, 2015).
21 “Better to marry a beggar than a Muslim” (Pen Myanmar, 2015).
22 Cartoonist Harn Lay’s 2017 piece on illegal immigration.
23 A meme with a call to action: “Because I am a Burmese Buddhist, if my race and religion are assailed, I should and will be rough and rude” (C4ADS, 2016).
24 Short, 2018.
25 Serrato, 2018.
26 Aung Kaung Myat, n.d.
27 Ong and Cabañes (2018) wrote a fascinating study of trolls-for-hire in the Philippines, but the objectives were quite different in that market context and it is difficult to know if the military trolls in Myanmar drew from the same repertoire of tactics.
28 Mozur, 2018b.
29 While the Times report installs the military as central, others describe the extensive networks and media machines run by prestigious nationalist monks; it is unclear where these two populations overlap, if at all.
30 Min Zin suggests that “hate speech” and its eager reception has changed “norms, practices, and the very lifestyle of society at large” (2015, p. 384).
31 This comment was made by an anonymous peer-reviewer for a 2014 Myanmar studies article of mine.
32 McCormick, 2020; Thein Lwin, 2010.
33 Allen, 2018.
34 Learning to Think, 2015.
35 Deevy, 2019.
36 Gramsci, 1971, pp. 9-12.
37 Jaeck writes that “decades of military rule,” meant that “critical thinking was strongly suppressed and completely absent from the curriculum – even at the university level” (2018).
38 C4ADS, 2016, p. 10.
39 Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, 2015, p. 107-8.
40 UNHCR, 2018, p. 340.
41 See Alex Aung Khant, 2017; Leehey, 2010, p. 13, 28.
42 Ma Thida in a 2018 presentation suggested that the State Peace and Development Council regime, knowing that the Burmese population held the USA in high esteem, presented the success of insurgents in Iraq resisting occupation as a way of showing the fallibility of the empire. She argues that a by-product of this was a deluge of imagery of militant Islam, which alarmed local audiences. Alex Aung Khant makes a similar argument, writing “It is also worth mentioning here that the same news clips of the Iraq war, that once made the generals fear a US attack and influenced their move to Naypyidaw, may have coagulated over the years and are perhaps one of the pivotal reasons why the local population have a poor image of the Islamic world. These clips may have played a pivotal role in changing local views by associating Islam with stereotypes of radical violence, stereotypes that are now present in many other parts of the world” (2017).
43 Alex Aung Khant comments on how fast Myanmar people have shifted their distrust from local to foreign media but does not explain why this has occurred (2017).
44 Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, 2015, p. 146.
45 Cartoonist Shwe Moe’s 2016 cartoon features a caricatured Chinese figure stealing Myanmar women and resources while nationalists sing a song directed at protecting against Muslims.
46 Cartoonist Thura’s 2016 cartoon features a caricatured Chinese figure singing of his exploitation while standing on dam and SEZ sites.
47 A caricatured Chinese figure comments on the friendly relations with the new government, conjures up the landslides in the China-linked jade industry (source unknown).
48 Way Yee Taungyi’s 2014 cartoon without text portrays caricatured Chinese figures colonizing Myanmar.
49 For discussion, see: Prasse-Freeman & Phyo Win Latt, 2018.
50 Cartoonist Htoo’s 2015 cartoon features caricatured Chinese and Muslim figures attempting to ‘pass’ as nationals but being betrayed by their accents.
51 Cartoonist Biruma’s 2015 cartoon features Chinese and Muslim figures, from the safety of their domiciled perches, commenting on the homeless problem that plagued Yangon in 2015.
52 Cartoonist Harn’s 2015 cartoon is one of many that feature both Chinese and Muslims together that contrast their putative culture of hard work hard work against Burmese sloth.
53 Cartoonist Biruma’s 2015 cartoon features a Muslim commenting to a Chinese about Bama squandering their wealth on beer.
54 In cartoonist Aung San Kyaw’s 2017 cartoon, while Muslim and Chinese shops remain perpetually open, a Burmese shop finds many reasons to close (1, 2), before closing for good and announcing its sale (3).
55 Cartoonist Maung Maung Fountain’s 2017 cartoon.
56 Cartoonist Biruma’s 2016 cartoon showing protesters for dignity protesting without dignity.
57 See: Phillips, 2015, p. 1.
58 For Burmese memes generally, see: Patton, 2018.
60 Morgan Freeman as Kofi Annan, source unknown.
61 Cartoonist Banthu Aung’s (date unknown) caricature of one Chinese and Kofi Annan acting as Myanmar Immigration officers (so identified by the slogan behind their heads), implying that China and the International community had usurped Myanmar’s sovereignty.
62 Vogt, 2016.
63 C4ADS, 2016, p. 10.
64 “Do not come and insult our race, our religion, and our religions community! If you are real Myanmar, share it!” (source unknown).
65 Walton, McKay, & Phyu Phyu Thi, 2015.
66 “Me First” by Maung Maung Fountain (2016).
67 @etakatetakate, 2016.
68 Myanmar cartoonists, 2017; Reed, 2018, Zarni 2017.
69 Reed, 2018.
71 Myanmar cartoonists, 2017.
72 Cartoonist Joker’s 2017 cartoon features a snake devouring an icon of a Myanmar citizen who is admonished to not say ‘hate speech’ by the man saving him.
73 Schissler, Walton, & Phyu Phyu Thi, 2015, p. 17.
74 Schissler, 2015, p. 14.
75 Silverstein, 2003.
76 Pen Myanmar, 2015, p. 29.
77 In Burmese: “ဆူဒန်နိုင်ငံတွင် ရှရီယာဥပဒေဖြင့် အပြစ်ပေးနေသော မြင်ကွင်းတစ်ခု”.
78 Pen Myanmar, 2015, p. 29.
79 Author’s photo of article from Thagee Thway, 2015.
80 Schissler et al, 2015.
81 Prasse-Freeman, 2017.
82 Schissler, 2013.
83 Selth, 2018, p. 23.
84 Inaccessible Facebook post from 10 July, 2019, on file with author.
85 Returns on investments, illustrated (Awzathee, 2017).
86 Siddique, 2013.
87 Schissler, 2016.
88 Stevens, H. (2017). A Feeling for the Algorithm: Working Knowledge and Big Data in Biology. Osiris, 32(1), 151-174.
89 Reich (2015), Markham (2013) and others have begun outlining participant observation methods for conducting this kind of research.
90 Silverstein, 2003.
91 Alex Aung Khant, 2017; Leehey, 2010.
92 Phandeeyar, 2019, p. 29; Eaint Thiri Thu, 2019, pp. 232-33, 235.
93 I have described this kind of orientation to truth as endemic to America as well (Prasse-Freeman, 2011).
94 Yen Snaing, 2013.
95 See also: McCarthy, 2018a; Min Zin, 2015, p. 379; Nyi Nyi Kyaw, 2019.
96 Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined Communities. Verso.
97 I thank Joe Errington for introduction to this semiotic reading of Anderson, as part of his Yale University course “Language, Power, Identity,” for which I served as a Teaching Fellow in 2016.
98 Given his presumptions of literacy and monolingualism that did not reflect contemporaneous realities – see Hobsbawm, 1996.
99 Goffman, 1981, pp. 124-157.
100 Walton, 2018, p. 103.
101 McCarthy 2018b, p. 181.
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