Where next for Burma?

Six months ago the world watched a courageous attempt led by Buddhist monks to replace military dic

In recent days much of the world's attention has been firmly fixed on Tibet and the plight of the Burmese people seems to have been all but forgotten.

And yet things are not improving in that country. Far from it. According to one renowned Buddhist leader, the situation is deteriorating six months on from the bloody military crackdown against the pro-democracy movement.

Many monks have been forced to cross into Thailand and Malaysia because of political persecution. There are widespread allegations of disappearances, murder and torture by the dictatorship.

All this seems to be continuing despite an announcement by the military junta that next month a national referendum will be held on a new constitution with elections following in 2010.

The state media reported that "the time has now come to change from military rule to democratic civilian rule". Considering the junta’s numerous broken promises, the announcement to restore democratic civilian rule has been at best received with scepticism.

The constitution drafting process has been carefully engineered since 1993 and unsurprisingly contains no input from the public instead being drawn up by a handpicked assembly, without the participation of the country's main democratic opposition and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In fact draft constitution will bar her from holding government office because she was married to a foreigner. It is already clear that the constitution will ensure the military retains a stronghold on power in Burma and 25 per cent of the seats in the new parliament will be reserved for the armed forces.

Civilians will be permitted to enter parliament, but only if they show due deference to the military leaders. It furthermore allows stringent restrictions on any activities deemed "inimical to national unity" which covers a wide range of criticism and dissent.

Indeed, criticism of the draft constitution is punishable with up to 20 years behind bars, and criticising the referendum with up to three.

The question of how a free vote will take place in such a climate remains something of a riddle, and - unsurprisingly - the draft constitution has been denounced by critics as a ruse to consolidate the junta’s power. The rejection of an UN offer to send international monitors has only heightened these suspicions.

Than Shwe, Burma’s 75 year old leader, declared before an audience of diplomats that the military regime that has ruled Burma for 45 years had now "a sincere aim for developing the country without any cravings for power".

He however, made no reference to the bloody oppression his regime is still perpetrating and one wonders who he can fool with this statement.

The world still remembers when thousands of Burmese took to the streets making a variety of demands reflecting the widespread dissatisfaction with the continued military rule and the policies of the ruling State Peace and Development Council.

At least 227 distinct protests in 66 towns were staged which resulted in the deaths of officially 15 people (independent estimates state at least twice this number). Approximately 6,000 people were arrested, including as many as 1,400 monks. It is estimated that at least 700 protesters and monks remain in detention.

The ruling 'State Peace and Development Council' has denied any knowledge of the majority of those it killed during the protests. No attempts have been made to identify the dead, return the bodies to the families or even give the dead the minimum Buddhist funerary rites.

Instead, numerous testimonies have revealed a strategy in which bodies were removed systematically to cover up the extent of the violence. The Human Rights Documentation Unit of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma refers in Bullets in the Alms Bowl to persistent reports testifying to the fact that Ye Way Crematorium in North Okkalapa Township was operated from the 27th to the 30th of September by security forces to dispose most probably of the bodies of those killed.

By cracking down on monks, the junta took a calculated risk when violence against the country’s spiritual leaders was bound to inflame popular sentiments. Burmese monks are highly revered in Burmese society.

Considered to be ‘Sons of Buddha’ they represent the strongest institution in Burma after the military. Although according to the Buddhist monastic code, monks are not supposed to involve themselves in mundane politics, they have played an important social and political role in history.

Throughout British rule for instance, the so called ‘political monks’ played an important role in mobilising opposition to colonial excesses. After independence, monastic organisations pushed the new leaders to make Buddhism the state religion.

Attempts in the 1960s and 70s to bring Buddhism under tighter control was met with fierce resistance and Burma’s young and active Buddhist community of about 300,000 has had an uneasy relationship with the ruling generals.

During the 1988 democracy marches, the independent monks union emerged to support the students. The regime responded by issuing decrees to keep the monks in line and banning all independent Buddhist organizations.

Over the last two decades, the monks have observed a religious boycott of the regime and have refused alms from the military regime or simply overturned their bowls instead of collecting food and donations. By ruthlessly keeping monastic involvement in politics to a minimum since 1988, the role of the monks at the head of the recent protests took many, including the Government, by surprise.

Burma specialist Michael Charney points out that although it may appear that the State has successfully cowed the monks into submission, they have in the past survived more serious episodes of persecution.

“Given their importance in Burmese society and their resilience in past periods of political turmoil, it would be foolish to assume that they will not rebound from current setbacks,” he argues.

The authorities have resolutely tried to snuff out dissent and intelligence officers have systematically detained thousands of people believed to have participated in the protests.

Anger is still floating beneath the surface, and this is even the case for many people who were previously apolitical.

The crackdown has altered dynamics inside Burma and the country’s future is still unknown. The level of fear, but also anger is unprecedented.

More importantly, following international outrage over the brutal behaviour of the military regime, there were indications that differences have grown within the military itself.

Every government in Burma, going back to monarchical times has sought legitimacy through the Buddhist Sangha. Many within the military feel guilt-ridden and ashamed of their role in beating and killing monks.

There are no open splits yet, but there have been rumblings of mismanagement and corruption. The younger generation of generals is slowly beginning to realise change is inevitable.

When that change will actually come is harder to gauge.

Carole Reckinger specialises in south east Asian politics. She drafted the 2007 Forced Labor Chapter for the Burma Human Rights Yearbook. Click here for more of her articles
Show Hide image

Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.