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Is Russia Working with Myanmar’s Military to Incite Hatred of the Rohingya?

Stephen Komarnyckyj reports on social media activity supporting the repression of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar.

Hundreds of Rohingya people crossing Bangladesh’s border in 2017
Is Russia Working with Myanmar’s Military to Incite Hatred of the Rohingya?

Stephen Komarnyckyj reports on social media activity supporting the repression of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar.

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A network of Facebook pages linked to Myanmar’s Army and Russia seems to be inciting hatred of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar.

The network was identified by Aung Kaung Myat, a researcher at AnnieLab – a project which challenges disinformation – based at the University of Hong Kong. The network may indicate that Russia is exporting its ‘hybrid war’ technology to its allies in Myanmar’s military.

There are strong links between the Myanmar and Russian military. In 2018, Myanmar purchased Russian military equipment and sent some officers to train in Russia.

The network could also link Russian subversion to one of the worst contemporary humanitarian crises, in which more than a million Rohingya Muslims have been driven out of their homes by Myanmar’s military into neighbouring Bangladesh in the past three years, with tens of thousands having died.

The Facebook pages – which have administrators based in Myanmar and Russia – have a combined following of 4.4 million people and their material is shared widely in Myanmar. One of the pages gives a partial Moscow address and a Russian mobile number, which is shared with two other pages in the network.

One of the people behind the network is likely to be a Myanmar army officer who was in Moscow in 2017 and is in a relationship with a Russian national, which dates from his time in Russia. Her social media profiles include images of a St. George’s Ribbon, used by Russia’s army in eastern Ukraine, and Russian nationalists. While it cannot be proved that the army officer has links to the intelligence services, humorously enough, the numbers ‘007’ feature in his blog handle and email. His Facebook associates include individuals from Myanmar who are linked to the military and Russia, and Russians with links to Myanmar.

As Aung Kaung Myat notes, three of thee Facebook pages initially used names that were reminiscent of genuine news outlets in Myanmar. The audience growth rate for the pages slowed when these ‘imposter names’ were changed.

The pages mainly post trivial material, celebrity news and humorous stories but also included political content. They support Myanmar’s military and were hostile to both the civilian government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the Rohingya people. This material is usually cross-posted across the pages.

The material covering the situation of the Rohingya Muslims is arguably inciting ethnic cleansing. It echoes the Myanmar military’s position that the Rohingya are not really citizens of Myanmar, but originate in Bangladesh. The posts also suggest that Myanmar is on the brink of war with Bangladesh.

The Rohingya – who make up a tiny percentage of Myanmar’s population – are presented as an ‘existential threat’ to the country. One post depicts the Rohingya as “illegal Bengali immigrants” and argues that they would be loyal to Bangladesh rather than Myanmar, the country of their birth, if war broke out. Other posts include a conspiracy theory suggesting that the rebel group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, is receiving military support from abroad. One particularly incendiary post makes unsubstantiated claims that underage girls are assaulted by the Rohingya and forced to convert to Islam. Myanmar’s soldiers are praised for their self sacrifice in battling the supposedly hostile Rohingya.

Why would Russia be interested in destabilising Bangladesh and creating more Rohingya refugees, while helping Myanmar’s military to undermine democracy in Myanmar?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously exported elements of what he calls “managed democracy” to the West, including using social media to manipulate public perceptions. He has similarly built up links with the extreme right globally and encouraged fear of Muslim refugees. The Myanmar operation fits with a strategy of changing global politics, in order to replace liberalism with autocratic societies that are socially conservative, nationalist and heavily militarised.

These global objectives and the value of Myanmar as an ally and a customer for Russian weaponry help explain this unpleasant influence operation.

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