Authorities in the countries directly affected by the Southeast Asian migrant crisis are becoming increasingly concerned about anti-migrant sentiment on social media.
While the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have said they will not allow the Burmese and Bangladeshi migrants floating off their shores – thought to number as many as 8,000 – to land, there is also growing concern over some of the vitriol and anti-migrant sentiment being expressed on social media.
A spokesman for the Thai government issued a statement Monday, saying: “Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is worried about the social media trend right now that shows that the government should not help irregular migrants in the Indian Ocean because of concerns that they will be a burden on Thailand in the long-term.”
The rise of online hate campaigns and vitriol against the migrants – most of whom are believed to be Rohingya Muslims – in the region reflects an all too prevalent trend in Burma (Myanmar), where many of the migrants are fleeing from. Since Facebook was legalized there in 2011 it has become a hotbed of sectarian extremism.
Asian Correspondent blogger Chan Myae Khine describes the situation following sectarian violence involving Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in western Burma in 2013:
Fabricated news and falsified images have come from several Facebook accounts with unknown identities. Buddhists portray Muslims as extremists and terrorists while Muslims say Buddhists as racists. Hoaxes are everywhere. Monks from Tibet helping out after a disaster became Buddhist monks killing Rohingya. Infants from orphanages were falsely portrayed as Burmese children displaced by Rohingya rioters.
Two years later not much has changed. Over the weekend a posting on the BBC’s Burmese Facebook page of a report on one man’s efforts to help save the migrants was met with a slew racist comments. On Monday, the BBC’s correspondent in Burma Jonah Fisher tweeted that his colleagues were receiving abuse and threats on Facebook as they tried to cover the situation in Rakhine state:
BBC Burmese colleague who travelled with us in Rakhine state – and reported similar things being bombarded by abusive messages on Facebook.
— Jonah Fisher (@JonahFisherBBC) May 18, 2015
The problem, however, does not appear to be limited to Burmese social media outlets. On Asian Correspondent’s Facebook posting of our report ‘Pressure mounts on ASEAN nations to deal with Rohingya migrant crisis, many of the comments 36 were sympathetic towards the migrants. However, a significant proportion of the comments – written in a number of languages and now deleted – were racist and abusive, with many commenters using the derogatory term ‘Bengali’ or calling the migrants ‘terrorists’.
“Back to Bangaladesh where they come from! For sure Burma and Thailand dont want any more! Not our problem!” wrote one commenter.
Thankfully, other social media users are working hard to build awareness of the migrants’ plight, and increase pressure on regional governments to help them. These include hashtags such as #SaveRohingyanMuslims on Twitter, and Facebook groups like ‘Rohingya Community‘ and ‘Rohingya Refugee‘.
As Chan Myae Khine wrote in 2013:
The one positive point of this worrying Facebook revolution is the vocal, and identifiable, users who stand up against extremists from all sides. Although promoting tolerance is not as easy as spreading a heated propaganda, they have prevented Facebook in Burma from becoming a graveyard of extremism.