AS the armed conflict in Rakhine State continues to escalate, forcing over 120,000 Rohingya Muslims from their homes, another war rages online as social media becomes the battlefield for winning hearts, minds and international support.
The impact of social media in the latest clashes is proving a powerful tool with counter-narratives being thrown from each side.
Since the Aug 25 attacks on security posts by armed rebel group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), there has been a slew of inflammatory material making the rounds on the Internet. The volume and often unreliable sources of this information are making the truth increasingly difficult to determine.
With media access in the region highly restricted, this provocative and often false social media buzz is shaping the narrative surrounding the conflict and widening the gulf of understanding between the sides and their supporters.
The Burmese government is using Facebook as part of a major public relations drive. Through its “Information Committee” account, de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s office is using the platform to win favour with the public and turn opinion against the militants.
Alarmingly detailed accounts of clashes and atrocities have sprung up in recent weeks that analysts claim are inflaming public sentiment and putting the lives of foreign aid workers at risk.
Photos posted by the government’s official account showing United Nations and US Agency for International Development (USAID) aid packages in militant camps have been blamed for mounting threats and vitriol directed at NGO and aid workers in the region.
Laid out on full display in a style reminiscent of a weapons seizure, the food parcels are shown to be linked to basic improvised explosive device (IED) pipe bombs allegedly constructed using the materials from aid organisations’ supplies.
Aid groups were quick to condemn the accusations that show a dangerous belligerence towards aid agencies, with Human Rights Watch Asia division deputy director Phelim Kine calling the move a “new low” and a “leadership failure” from Suu Kyi.
The post quickly stirred both anti-Rohingya and anti-NGO sentiment among the people of Burma (Myanmar), where humanitarian assistance has been common place for generations. One Twitter user called the humanitarian community “supporters who made war in Rakhine”, and another user showed a cartoon of a UN representative standing by as a Buddhist Burmese man is killed.
— Nectar (@Nectar47818292) August 27, 2017
Are you seeing or looking for our mother land?Do you know realities? You shoud understand and know how about it. pic.twitter.com/cQB8EPZjpe
— Kyal Kha (@KhaKyal) September 2, 2017
Pushing back against widespread international condemnation and derogatory foreign reporting, the army and military forces are also using social media to point the finger of blame at militants.
Pictures of razed Rohingya homes and villages, claimed to be the handy work of ARSA, have appeared on the military’s Facebook page. These have been widely disputed by eyewitnesses, however, who claim the Burmese army are those responsible for the destruction.
Much of the inflammatory details seem designed to anger public opinion and rile religious tensions, such as one post that states rebels “cut off all the heads of the Buddha statues”.
Countering the government’s vocal rhetoric, ARSA have also proven to be media-savvy, releasing statements in English and using Facebook and Twitter to push its message for peace and call for international assistance in the suffering of their people.
Using their platform to directly contradict the claims of the government, ARSA are throwing accusations back, alleging the army are using the Rakhine community as “human shields” and “molesting Rohingya women”.
— ARSA_The Army (@ARSA_Official) August 25, 2017
The counter arguments coming from either side have served to rile supporters of both causes. Intimidation and anger against all players have become common place as the rhetoric on each side escalates.
A number of accounts have attributed fake photos to the atrocities, stirring both anti-government and anti-Rohingya sentiment. Pictures from conflicts in other countries have been circulated by the public and have even lured politicians and news agency into believing their authenticity.
Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek was quickly criticised for posting a statement condemning the “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims accompanied by a series of photos that turned out to be from Aceh, Indonesia and the 1994 conflict in Rwanda, according to the BBC.
SHAME ON YOU,MEHMET SIMSEK!NOT ONE OF PHOTO IS FROM ARAKEN,MYANMAR. YOU ARE SHAMELSSLY MISLEADING THE WORLD.GIVEN A DEPUTY PM. pic.twitter.com/Cu676zJqMj
— AUNG HEIN BO BO (@aungheinbobo191) September 2, 2017
As the frenzied social media battle around the ongoing Rohingya crisis continues to boil, the truth of what is happening in the region is getting lost in the battle to win public relation points, leaving people unsure of what they can trust.
The increasingly corrosive counter-campaigns are acting to harden the resolve of supporters on each side. Not only is is becoming more difficult to determine fact from falsehood, but it is driving each camp further apart and further from finding a solution to the worsening conflict.