Nyo Twan Awng was an early adopter of Facebook in Myanmar. A doctor, he joined the social network in 2013, and said he used it to source medical information, as well as to share his poems and articles about art and literature. Alongside his artistic pursuits, he ran another channel: the Arakan Army Info Desk, a propaganda stream for the Arakan Army (AA), an armed group fighting for self-determination in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state.
As the AA’s conflict with the national military, known as the Tatmadaw, heated up in 2015, he posted reports and images from frontline clashes and recruitment videos. The battle reports were removed by the social network, but the page stayed up until 2019, when the government, by then led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), declared the AA a terrorist organization. Soon afterwards, Facebook banned the Arakan Army and its allies.
Now, Nyo Twan Awng, who is the AA’s deputy chief, wants Facebook to reinstate the accounts. “I valued my account as a son of mine,” he said.
Following the February 1 coup d’état in Myanmar, activists, pro-democracy campaigners, and even supporters of the remnants of the NLD government, are asking for that ban to be rescinded. After a dramatic reshuffling of the political landscape, the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) are no longer opponents of the democratically-elected government, but core members of the resistance to the new government. They say that Facebook’s moderation is now penalizing the broader anti-coup movement because of its loose association with groups proscribed by the last government, which in turn is limiting their ability to organize and communicate.
“We can’t post and we can’t show what is happening on the ground,” said Min Bar Chay, the director of All Arakan Youth Organization Network, a human rights organization, who says his posts have been repeatedly taken down for allegedly violating community standards. “[Having] information is important for people who are under attack. It’s like trying to close the people’s eyes and ears.”
Facebook declined to comment on the record.
The block on EAOs was controversial even in 2019. Activists said that as well as restricting content relating to the armed insurgency, the restrictions also limited their ability to talk about human rights violations targeting ethnic minorities in Myanmar — where a genocide against the Rohingya was allegedly fuelled by hate speech on Facebook, and where the NLD government had routinely denied the right of minorities to claim Burmese nationality. The government excluded the AA from national peace talks in August 2020.
“After [Facebook] restricted many things that related to ethnic armed groups, we [activists] and journalists …couldn’t post about these issues,” Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a human rights activist, told Rest of World. “Those restrictions stopped the flow of information to the public.”
But the NLD was the legitimate government, and Facebook had to comply.
The situation is now far more complicated. After seizing power, the junta tried to divide the opposition by withdrawing the AA’s terrorist label.
Parts of the former NLD government have now joined a so-called national unity government (NUG), which has included former political opponents and some representatives of minority ethnic groups. The NUG, too, has said that the EAOs are no longer terrorists.
Neither the junta nor the NUG are officially recognized as the government of Myanmar, but the NUG has broad support among the pro-democracy movement. “The NUG have already removed EAOs from the terrorist [list]. So, Facebook needs to follow this, and to remove restrictions,” Yi said.
The EAOs’ continued presence on the list of terrorist groups is creating problems for the anti-coup movement. Activists and journalists told Rest of World that they are finding their posts and pages taken down for violating community standards when they discuss the increasingly popular idea of a “federal army” comprised of ethnic militias in opposition to the Tatmadaw. They fear that the new alliance, which includes peaceful protesters, human rights groups and civilian politicians, is being restricted by association with the EAOs.
One, a journalist from Rakhine, posted an article on his Facebook page discussing the need for the EAOs to work together to overthrow the military junta that seized power in February. The piece was quickly removed by the social media platform. “Although it’s purely about politics, it was removed by Facebook by simply saying that it did not meet its community standards,” said the journalist, who asked to remain anonymous. Rest of World spoke to 15 people, and received reports from around 50 others, who said they had similar experiences.
Facebook garnered qualified praise for its initial response to the coup. The company was quick to ban pages related to the Tatmadaw across its platforms. However, Yi said its failure to react to the subsequent political shifts show that it still needs to improve its understanding of the country.
“[Facebook should] immediately review their plan on designation of terrorism and replace the presence of ethnic armed armies on platform,” she said. “And to assign a national level Facebook Oversight Board for Burma.”