Blocking Facebook: A Hot New Trend in Southeast Asia?

When clashes broke out in Mandalay in central Myanmar between Buddhists and Muslims early this month, the initial response of the government was to impose a curfew. Then, it blocked Facebook.

Police claimed blocking the social network would help prevent the spread of violence, but citizens and free speech advocates were skeptical of this rationale.

In an interview with the Irrawaddy Magazine, Myanmar Chief Police Officer Win Kaung admitted that the government ordered the blocking. He explained that their aim was to stop religious extremists from using the Internet to incite more hatred between people of different faiths:

Yes, we blocked it. We wanted to stop the instigation. When they are doing the instigation or spreading the unverified news, this could only provoke the underlying hatred between different groups or people; one's own word or line could lead to a bigger conflict.

In recent years, there has been a surge of anti-Muslim sentiment among the Burmese, the majority of whom are Buddhists. Some Buddhist leaders have begun openly attacking the Muslim community for conspiring to dominate Myanmar.

Cambodia anti-censorship campaign image by Licadho. Used with permission.

Cambodia anti-censorship campaign image by Licadho. Used with permission.

The four-day riot in Mandalay, which killed two people and injured 14 others, was triggered by an unverified online story about the alleged rape of a Buddhist employee by her Muslim employers in a tea shop. The story was posted in the popular Burmese news site Thit Htoo Lwin. Although the original story was deleted from Thit Htoo Lwin, conversations about the story went viral on Facebook.

This led Burmese-American author Kenneth Wong to ask netizens to be more responsible when using the Internet. “In today's tinderbox environment of Burma, it only takes one irresponsible news story and a few thousand mouse clicks on Facebook to set Mandalay or any other major city ablaze.”

Indeed, the Myanmar government needs to address the growing threat of religious extremism, which is also an online menace, but its decision to block Facebook could set a dangerous precedent. Will the police also adopt the same measure to quell anti-government protests in the future? Further, it does not help to resolve the issues that lie at the root of the religious and ethnic conflict.

Did the Thai Junta order the blocking of Facebook?

Myanmar Facebook users were not the only people in the region who suffered from disconnection this year. On May 28, Facebook became inaccessible in Thailand. Although Thai authorities blamed the blocking on a technical glitch, many people suspected that the government was behind the mysterious, temporary disappearance of Facebook from Thailand.

The suspicion was confirmed when Norway-based company Telenor, which operates a mobile phone network in Thailand through its subsidiary DTAC, acknowledged that there was an order from the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission to block Facebook for one hour:

This restriction, which was implemented at 15:35, potentially had impact on dtac’s 10 million Facebook-using customers. Telenor Group believes in open communication and regrets the consequences this might have had for the people of Thailand.

Telenor has since then apologized for issuing this statement “which damaged the public image” of Thai agencies but it did not retract its claim that there was a government request to restrict Facebook on May 28.

The Thai army launched a coup on May 22, suspended the Constitution, and detained hundreds of politicians. It quickly closed down TV stations, radio, and other mainstream media channels. But it failed to shut down social media networks despite stern warnings to netizens not to question or undermine coup leaders.

The Facebook shutdown in Thailand, even if it lasted for only one hour, could be part of the government’s plan to control information and dissuade citizens from joining anti-coup activities.

No Policy to Close Facebook, but…

On August 7, 2013, Facebook became inaccessible in Cambodia. Follow-up analysis indicated that the blocking was most likely caused by a technical error. But this didn’t stop some Cambodians from accusing the government of plotting to block Facebook. Amid intense protests surrounding election results — as the ruling party faced allegations of electoral fraud — young Cambodians were actively using the Internet to engage in politics. For some, the Internet became an avenue for joining the opposition in criticizing the government.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for three decades already, mentioned Facebook several times in his first major speech during the opening of the parliament. He clarified that his government does not intend to censor Facebook but also urged the people not to use Facebook to promote unrest or “damage social stability”:

The government has no policy to close Facebook, but I would like to appeal to people not to let Facebook become a tool to damage social stability and insult people.

Another country which claims it does not have a policy to block Facebook is Vietnam. But unlike in Cambodia, Facebook is regularly blocked in Vietnam, to the point that many users are accustomed to the on again-off again dynamic. Local expat blog Saigonist observes how Facebook remained popular in the country despite the interruptions in access:

Facebook isn't actually banned in Vietnam, it just suffers from “technical difficulties” from time to time that nobody seems to bother to investigate for the millions of users in Vietnam.

Travel writer Adam Bray explains Vietnam’s method in restricting Facebook:

Vietnam started blocking Facebook in September 0f 2009 due to political speech concerns. There was never an official call to block it—but a government memo was leaked. In typical Vietnam fashion, the website block was not across the board—it was left to each ISP to implement on their own. Thus Facebook access varied a lot depending upon your location and service provider, but eventually most ISP’s cut off direct access.

He also observed that Facebook is often blocked when the Vietnamese Communist Party is preparing to conduct an important activity or assembly.

Alarming Trend

That Myanmar authorities acknowledged their decision to block Facebook early this month is especially significant: For the first time, they officially and explicitly asserted their intent to censor the Web. Will this become the default approach for other leaders in the Southeast Asian region? It seems that more and more governments are becoming more aggressive in their efforts to block Facebook, especially during crisis moments. Netizens should respond by remaining vigilant in our fight to keep the Internet open and safe.

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