At a roundtable forum on youth literature hosted by Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi at Mandalay University on Aug. 11, a student named Nandar La Min Aye made a seemingly innocuous comment linking gaming, gender, and educational outcomes. For the next several days, she endured a barrage of online harassment in a chain of events that resembles the 2014 #GamerGate controversy.
“Eight out of ten boys spend more time in gaming shops than libraries. They miss sleep and skip meals just to keep gaming. Instead of spending time in game shops, they should spend more time in libraries. I think we should tax gaming shops more to control how much boys play video games there,” Nandar La Min Aye said during the forum.
The comment echoed similar statements made by Aung San Suu Kyi at the forum, during which she lamented boys’ lack of interest in university education compared to that of girls and said boys should be encouraged to enter trade schools instead.
“I’m worried for the boys,” the state counsellor said. “The number of boys not finishing high school is rising. This is not good for our country.”
Nonetheless, the backlash was reserved for Nandar La Min Aye, and it came swiftly. Minutes after the words left her mouth, the live comment feed on the Facebook Live broadcast of the event filled with rebuttals to her statement, many containing sexist language.
Over the next couple of hours, her Facebook profile was inundated with messages and friend requests from complete strangers. She turned off the “Request Friend” button on her profile later that day. Coconuts was not able to reach her for comment on this story.
While some of the demeaning comments were addressed to Nandar La Min Aye’s social media profiles directly, most were shared in Game Cast Network (GCN) – a popular Facebook group for Burmese gaming enthusiasts. Though its content can only be seen by members, it currently counts more than 19,000 members.
In multiple threads in the GCN group, male members shared their private communications with Nandar La Min Aye and mocked her comments, her appearance, and what they perceived to be an unfair assessment of Burmese gaming culture.
One commenter wrote: “Why is she butting into people playing their own games?”
Another wrote: “If you look at what she looks like, she probably can’t play games. Just keep reading your books and be happy.”
Another accused her of “sucking up to what the adults want to hear.”
One commenter posted a photo of the US$10 million cash prize at the upcoming TI Dota 2 Championships with the caption: “Is this your mother’s pussy?”
Multiple members of the group also shared the link to Nandar La Min Aye’s personal Facebook profile.
The coordinated online harassment campaign is reminiscent of “#GamerGate” – an online movement criticizing and attacking women in the video game industry in the United States in 2014. Though it had not leaders or specific agenda, the #GamerGate movement has sometimes been characterized as a response to perceived critiques by women against the male “gamer” identity.
While the harassment campaigns associated with #GamerGate included doxxing, rape threats, and death threats, the backlash against Nandar La Min Aye included more disparaging comments and memes about her gender, her appearance, her qualifications as a computer science student, and her alleged misunderstanding of gaming culture in Myanmar.
The coordinated campaign of harassment against Nandar La Min Aye is yet another example of how social media can be a double-edged sword in Myanmar’s sociopolitical landscape. On one hand, it has given millions in Myanmar access to the internet, achieving new levels of transparency and bulldozing obstacles to information that weren’t available when SIM cards were ridiculously overpriced.
On the other hand, the unprecedented access that social media provides to its users is ripe for sabotage. Netizens can leverage the unusual amount of power that they now wield to direct their attention and resources to target and disparage others that hold different viewpoints.
In the case of Nandar La Min Aye, a casual observation on a national stage led to an avalanche of insults, disparaging comments and public shaming, shining a light on the insecurities that exist among Myanmar gamer and their sexist reflexes.