Undertones in Myanmar: Junta, Buddhism, Youth

This story is part of Undertones, Global Voices’ Civic Media Observatory‘s newsletter. It features a summary of a year-long research on media ecosystems from Myanmar and what we can expect in 2023. Whenever you click on a hyperlink in the text, you will see the narrative and media posts upholding it. Subscribe to Undertones.

The Observatory has been monitoring Myanmar since 2020 and over the course of time, our researchers identified trends and developments that paved the way for a power grab. Then, Myanmar’s early 2021 military takeover came with diverse attempts to conquer civic trust. The junta’s narratives have shifted and metamorphosed in the last two years to justify its power grab, extreme violence against dissenters, and total control of the state. As monitored by our researchers, military supporters amplify these narratives online, especially on Facebook and Telegram, even with attempts of the junta to control those spaces.

The genesis of a coup

In February 2021, mere months after Aung San Suu Kyi’s party had won Myanmar’s 2020 elections by a landslide, signaling the population’s will to move towards a fully-fledged democracy, the military staged a coup.

The junta and its proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), depose the civilian government led by the National League for Democracy party (NLD), citing ‘electoral fraud’ as its justification. The narrative that “Aung San Suu Kyi and her party cannot be trusted” was peddled online for months before the actual elections, setting the stage for the deposition of the State Counselor and President.

A decade of disinformation fuelled by right-wing Buddhists

Buddhist nationalists have attempted to discredit Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party for years. In 2015, the NLD opposed a law seeking to safeguard Buddhism and the majority ethnic Bamar (Burmese) group, at a time when there was rising violence against Rohingya Muslims and growing Islamophobia online. This vote sparked a backlash from the powerful right-wing Buddhist sector. Popular narratives on Facebook in 2020 were “Real Buddhists should not vote for NLD party“, and “Voting NLD will be the end of Buddhism“.

“Democracy = chaos”

As anti-coup protests proliferated after February 2021, the military’s response became increasingly violent. The junta justified its power grab by stating that  its rule “was necessary for the country’s stability”. A year later, it further extended its rule, claiming that Myanmar was “in chaos”.

A historical perspective is necessary to understand how this narrative emerged. Myanmar had been under a military regime for decades, until 2011. Those in favor of military rule argue that Burmese martial rule is necessary for peace. All in all, they argue that the country is not only functional post-coup, but doing much better. This is despite all evidence to the contrary.

These narratives became stronger when large pro-democracy movements split into smaller, armed guerrilla groups waging war against the military. Under the umbrella of  “People’s Defence Force”, some of the country’s youth have taken up arms, and many have allied themselves with ethnic minorities to fight against the Tatmadaw (the military regime). It is important to acknowledge that Burmese people refrain from using the term “Tatmadaw” when talking about the military, as the word translates to “Royal Armed Forces” and indicates prestige and glory.

“[The resistance] has targeted military staff, informants and government buildings, which were viewed as terrorist attacks attempting to disrupt a peaceful Burmese society”, explain our researchers, who remain anonymous for safety reasons. On Facebook, posts accusing these groups of terrorism abound.

In a similar vein, when the military commits an atrocity, such as setting a village on fire, it justifies its actions by stating that it has no choice but to respond to the war waged by rebel groups.

“It’s the stupid youth’s fault”

Young people constitute most rebel armed groups throughout the country. A year and a half into the coup, the military attempted to change its tone regarding the youth by emphasizing less on the “terrorist” label, focusing instead on painting the resistance fighters as “misguided, immoral, and drug-addicted youth”.

By mid-2022, the military announced that those who leave these rebel groups and rejoin society would be spared violent repercussions. “This was mostly seen as a thinly-veiled attempt to trap the youth, to no success”, our researchers say.

onservative Buddhist values are at risk”

Conservative Buddhist nationalists make up a large part of the military regime and its supporters. They resent the progressive values that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party showcased, such as tolerance for minority groups. For example, back in 2020, the NLD promised more civic space for Muslim politicians, women, and rights for the LGBTQ+ community.

Even though there are many who think the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi were actually far from being progressive, right-wing Buddhists argued that “the civilian government’s values were contrary to Buddhism and Myanmar”. In 2020, narratives denouncing women in politics and queer culture were rampant online, and were painted as the consequences of a morally-corrupt government.

So, for an older generation of nostalgic military supporters, “only military supporters value Buddhism and care about the nation”. According to this group, only they truly understand Buddhist values and how important it is for them to be entrenched in conservatism.

Before the coup, this sector claimed that Facebook was silencing its views, many of them sexist, homophobic and Islamophobic. “Following the coup, the circulation of these extreme, harmful posts became more rampant as military supporters felt safer expressing these views under a military regime”, our researchers say. “They also cite these as justification for the military’s violence toward pro-democracy supporters.”

When the quality of life and the economy took a plunge after the coup, the nationalist Buddhist narrative reappeared again, signaling that people “needed to adapt to life under military rule” by living a content (and poor) Buddhist life. By portraying economic hardships as a necessary tool for salvation, the military’s mismanagement of the economy was painted in a positive light.

Major themes studied in 2022

In the interactive chart below, you can see the relation between the major themes we have studied and overall narrative frames.

What to expect in 2023

The military regime is planning to hold a general election which is likely to take place in August 2023. This is  an election that the NLD party and resistance groups have vowed to boycott. Our researchers predict that “the majority of narratives in 2023 will center around these upcoming military-organized elections”, which will come from military supporters and anti-military resistance groups.

Our researchers expect narratives that promote the upcoming election, claim that the Myanmar military has stabilized the country, is in total control, and is the legitimate ruler, as well as narratives that call for a brutal crackdown on NLD supporters and dissidents who may pose a threat to the elections. Narratives concerning the protection of ‘Amyo-Batha-Tharthana’ (Race, Language and Religion), promoted by nationalists and fundamentalist groups, are also anticipated.

On the other end of the ideological spectrum, opposition groups are expected to assert narratives on social media that oppose a military-organized elections — claiming that the process will be a sham, and urging the people to boycott the elections.

Along with these online narratives, an escalation of offline incidents seems likely, such as intensified armed conflicts across the country, increased digital surveillance, brutal crackdowns and arrests of anti-junta critics by military authorities, and anti-military attacks on polling stations and administrative offices.

Other noteworthy narratives circulating in Myanmar:

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