Facebook ban on army chief silences Myanmar's military mouthpiece

YANGON (Reuters) - Facebook's FB.O announcement on Monday that it was removing accounts connected to Myanmar's military effectively cuts off the armed forces' main channel of communication with the public.

FILE PHOTO: Rohingya refugees continue to make their way after crossing from Myanmar into Palang Khali, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, November 2, 2017. To match Special Report MYANMAR-FACEBOOK/HATE REUTERS/Hannah McKay/File Photo

Facebook dominates the social media landscape in Myanmar, where millions of people have come online for the first time since reforms to liberalize the telecoms sector began in 2013.

The government uses Facebook to make major announcements, including the resignation of the country’s president in March.

Facebook said it had banned 20 individuals and organizations to prevent the spread of “hate and misinformation” after reviewing the content.

Clare Wareing, a spokeswoman for the Menlo Park, California-based company, told Reuters by email that it was the first time the company had banned members of a military or state actors.

Military spokesman Colonel Zaw Min Tun declined to comment on Facebook’s action. Government spokesman Zaw Htay did not answer calls seeking comment.

The ban included two pages dedicated to the army’s commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, that have been the military’s primary outlet for information, especially around the crisis in the western state of Rakhine last year.

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled the state for Bangladesh after a security crackdown launched in response to attacks by Rohingya militants.

Min Aung Hlaing’s pages - one of which was “liked” by 1.3 million people - gave detailed running commentaries of what it said were battles with the militants.

Other posts showed the bespectacled commander in civilian clothing giving alms to monks, or viewing potential weapon purchases abroad. The accounts showed military doctors treating the sick and soldiers performing public works in rural areas.

The military also operates its own newspaper and television station, but Facebook has allowed it to communicate in real time, even as operations unfolded on the ground. Facebook said the accounts it banned on Monday had 12 million followers.

“Facebook has been the key channel enabling the military’s communication with the public and this ban will hit their communication ability hard,” said Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based independent political analyst and former U.N. diplomat to the country.

Horsey said Min Aung Hlaing was a politically-savvy operator whom some analysts and diplomats have tipped as a potential candidate at the next election in 2020, when Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is likely to face opposition from nationalists aligned with the military.

“He has built a significant political profile for himself extending well beyond his narrow military role and has used Facebook to project it onto the public,” said Horsey.

Reuters was unable to contact Min Aung Hlaing on Monday.

The social media giant has been accused of acting too slowly to remove content that has fueled violence, especially in the western Rakhine state that is home to the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority.

Facebook said on Monday it was making progress on preventing “the spread of hate and misinformation” in Myanmar, admitting it had been “too slow to act”. Many of those banned were found by international experts to have committed or enabled human rights abuses, Facebook said.

Facebook's action today comes a week after Reuters published an investigative report that found more than 1,000 posts, comments and images that attacked Rohingya and other Muslim users on the platform. (For the Reuters investigation on 'Why Facebook is losing the war on hate speech in Myanmar' click, here)

U.N.-mandated investigators said in a report published earlier on Monday that Facebook had been “a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate, in a context where for most users Facebook is the Internet.”

Reporting by Simon Lewis and Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by John Chalmers and Alex Richardson