Myanmar elections: The guerrilla PR war being fought on Facebook

Social network a hugely important PR platform for candidate Aung San Suu Kyi's democratic message, but also a tool for the government's crackdown on free speech

Aung San Suu Kyi greeting supporters in Bago (Htoo Tay Zar/Wikimedia Commons)

The power of Facebook in the historic election battle in Myanmar is having a significant impact on the country’s citizens, with the opposition making the most of its PR potential and the government using it to clamp down on activists.

Although internet coverage across Myanmar remains limited, candidates in next month’s general election, its first for 25 years, are using Facebook extensively as part of their PR strategy to get their message out.

The social network has become an extremely effective communications platform over the past three years, particularly for those in opposition and political dissidents.

These groups were slower on the uptake than the Burmese government, which has been active on Facebook since 2012.

Having seen how public officials used it to promote their policies, those in opposition have taken advantage of Facebook’s inherently open and democratic platform to make themselves heard.

None have been more active than Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, whose presence on Facebook has exploded over the past year ahead of the elections.

Capitalising on the surge in her popularity since her release from 15 years’ detention, she has been connecting with the public through widely attended rallies, and her Facebook page.

It has almost 1.5 million likes and she has been regularly posting speeches, videos, photos and messages regarding her brand of politics, each of which garner tens of thousands of likes and shares.

Those drawn to Suu Kyi and the NLD represent a new generation of Burmese voters who are just like their counterparts anywhere else: committed to change and tech-savvy. And Facebook has been vital in unifying their voice.

"These people are educated, middle-class and some are even some high-level businessmen," said one source in Yangon who spoke to PRWeek Asia on condition of anonymity.

"Some of them became strong activists in leading and generating their thoughts and ideas to counteract the Facebook lobby posts from the government."

However, while Facebook has been crucial to spreading messages of hope and democracy for many Burmese, it has also been exploited by the government, who use it to find and silence those who speak against them.

In just the past few weeks, three people have been arrested for sharing Facebook posts considered disrespectful to the ruling military government.

Chaw Sandi Htun, known as Chit Thamee on Facebook, was jailed and now faces trial for posting that the new military outfit colour is similar to the traditional dress of Suu Kyi, and if they admire her so much they should wear it on their heads.

Similarly, Khun Ja Lee was arrested for sharing a picture deemed disrespectful and also faces trial, though he denies sharing that post.

These moves have been widely condemned by the international community as a blatant attack on the fundamental human right of free speech.

But while Facebook weighs up how to address this use of its platform, Burmese dissidents continue to use the social network and try to stay ahead of the snooping authorities.

"Some of the activists use fake accounts with different identities for their security," the source told PRWeek Asia. "But many lobbyists from the government also use different fake accounts in their operations."

The result is a guerrilla PR war being fought on Facebook, with the heart of Myanmar’s future at stake.

As hard as the government tries, sometimes the opposition makes their mark and escapes unscathed. Last month one person was arrested over a fake account that opposed the government, but was later freed because there was insufficient evidence that he was the account owner.

Interestingly, another Facebook user was arrested for distributing faked nude photos of Suu Kyi. The government used the incident to highlight that it was not specifically targeting its opponents, although the case took much longer to come to light than many others.

Whatever the outcome of the election, it is clear that Facebook has presented Burmese voters and politicians with an unprecedented opportunity to get their message out.

With that power has come some significant cost, but the source PRWeek Asia spoke to said the PR that has been derived from Facebook will linger on and could shape Myanmar’s future.

"The NLD only started using Facebook actively about a year ago," the source said. "But there are many posts filled by its supporters and volunteer activists for democracy in Myanmar and it is accumulating." 

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