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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar pro-military camp ramps up belligerence on social media

Public displays of loyalty may seek to shore up base amid nationwide protests

Pro-military keyboard warriors are leaving a trail of posts trying to justify the military's brutal crushing of the pro-democracy protests. (Nikkei montage/Reuters)

BANGKOK -- Shortly after Moe Hein and his wife, Su Su Hlaing, were gunned down in their home in a central Myanmar township last Friday night, word spread within some Facebook groups that the Pyu Saw Htee, a pro-military vigilante group, was linked to the killing.

The chilling details included the couple's name appearing on a Pyu Saw Htee list of 38 members of the National League for Democracy in the township where they lived, Myingyan. The list had been posted online in the local language, threatening activists of the NLD -- the political party that was denied its second term as an elected government after the military seized power in February -- for joining the anti-coup protests that had erupted across the country.

The slaying has amplified the Pyu Saw Htee's growing swagger on social media. Previous posts on a Facebook page of the vigilante group affirmed that it was marching in step with the military-regime. An earlier one stated: "The government is a guest of the nation. The army will exist forever as long as the nation exists." The group, which draws its name from an ancient king of Burma, as the country was previously known, emerged in mid-May.

And it has allies: an army of keyboard warriors on social media platforms who have been pounding out belligerent, pro-military messages to assert their presence in Myanmar's post-coup cyberspace battleground. Analysts reckon they are drawn from an assortment of active soldiers, retired veterans, members of the pro-military political party, members of military families and a network of pro-military cronies. The social media platforms they frequent under varying guises are Facebook, Russia's VK and TikTok.

They struck soon after Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the powerful commander in chief of the military, staged the coup. At the outset, they left a trail of posts that tried to justify the military's brutal crushing of the pro-democracy protests that spread through large cities like Yangon, the commercial capital.

Protesters against Myanmar's military, seen beyond a line of police, cross their arms against marchers in a rally supporting the military coup in central Yangon on Feb. 25.   © Getty Images

In February and March, there were posts that said, "The protesters got what they deserve" and "That's what you get for rioting. I hope the army shows no mercy," according to Kenneth Wong, a San Francisco-based Burmese American author and blogger. "Some of the pro-junta posts applauding the attacks on the protesters were quickly identified by the online (pro-democracy) activists as posts from the family members of the soldiers and police officers."

Seasoned observers of social media trends in Myanmar noticed public displays of military loyalty that had not made its mark hitherto. "The pro-military actors were generally emboldened on Facebook after the coup," said Victoire Rio, researcher with the Tech Accountability Initiative, which has been tracking the online space in Myanmar. "There was a profile campaign with thousands of accounts showing their support for the military."

Stamps of their identity included "a number of accounts displaying their army uniform as profile photos, something which was very rare on Facebook pre-coup," she added. "A wave of several hundreds of uniformed soldiers also took to TikTok in the weeks after the coup."

A June report by Global Witness, an international human rights campaigner, shed light on the nature of the Facebook posts by pro-military netizens, ranging from posts praising the military and glorifying its abuses to incitement, threats of violence and brazen misinformation campaigns "that could lead to physical harm." A video posted on one page featured "an expletive-filled monologue, in which a man threatens anyone who insults the military," the report said.

"A separate post from March 18 shows an aerial photo of the notorious Insein Prison used to detain political prisoners. The post states that this is the headquarters of the CRPH and is accompanied by laughing emojis," it added. The Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw is the legislative body in exile that NLD lawmakers formed after the coup.

According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, a local human rights network, the security forces have arrested over 6,500 people since it grabbed power. It has also killed nearly 900 civilians, including children, in the brutal response to the continuing anti-coup protests.

Facebook reportedly has over 27 million accounts in a country of 54 million, dominating other social media platforms like VK, TikTok, Instagram and Twitter. But in the wake of the harsh military campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority in western Myanmar in 2017, resulting in ethnic cleansing, Facebook became an amplifier of anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim hate speech, led by the generals in the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, and ultra-Buddhist nationalists.

Military supporters march in opposition to anti-coup protests in Yangon on Feb. 25.   © AP

The coup prompted the social media giant to stick to its guns, banning Tatmadaw-related accounts in an echo of a strong policy enforced after the 2017 Rohingya attacks, when it banned Min Aung Hlaing and 20 military-linked pages. "This decision to ban the Tatmadaw has had implications for pro-military accounts, known in Myanmar as 'lobby pages,' that often propagate pro-military disinformation," wrote the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, in a study published in May titled "Myanmar's Military Struggles to Control the Virtual Battlefield."

The report noted that Facebook's pushback against recidivism has led to pro-military accounts struggling "to build a following when they try to reestablish themselves," and pages that previously had "millions of followers now often attract a maximum of 1,000 before they are removed."

Consequently, analysts have wondered who the netizens in the pro-military camp are targeting. One view that has gained ground is that the messages are aimed at bolstering the military's followers, serving as social glue for a group that varies from 1 million to 2 million. Some suggested the main target may be the military's base: military personnel and their families, supporters of the military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party, nationalist groups and civil servants.

But the military's attitude toward Facebook has exposed a paradox. In May, the military regime excluded Facebook and Twitter from a list of 1,200 online services it had approved for public consumption. Not surprisingly Russia's VK, where some pro-military netizens have moved after being banned from Facebook, is on the whitelist.

"The Tatmadaw is still making efforts to get back onto Facebook surreptitiously, but with limited success," said Pierre Prakash, the ICG's deputy Asia director. "We also see pro-military accounts that spread disinformation constantly trying to get back onto Facebook but being removed before they can reestablish a significant presence."

But although the pro-military camp has failed to gain a large presence on social media like Facebook, it is making up for that through the venom of the messages that it has succeeded in posting since May and June. A newly evolving target is the country's Muslim minority, often made scapegoats over the decades by the military and the ethnic Burmese Buddhist majority in the ethnically diverse nation.

"A change of theme on social media posts since May and June is the launching of anti-Muslim conspiracies," said Kyaw Win, executive director of the Burma Human Rights Network, based in London.

"This is a misinformation tactic the military always does," he added. "Historically, every uprising has been cracked down on brutally, and once the public is calm, [the military] diverts attention towards the Muslims -- a strategy that has been in place since the 1970s until today."

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