Support for legislation in Myanmar criminalizing “hate speech” gathers steam

A number of groups are working on drafting a bill to criminalize “hate speech” in Myanmar, a move that could strike a serious blow against hardline Buddhist nationalists should it ever make its way through parliament.

U Aung Ko, Myanmar’s new Minister for Religious Affairs, expressed his support for the idea in a meeting with an interfaith organization in Yangon on Sunday, the Voice reported, quoting a member of the group.

“It is necessary to have this kind of law,” interfaith leader U Kyaw Nyein told the Voice. “He [the minister] was saying that law experts and religious leaders could make the law and propose it to the government.”

His comments could not be independently verified, and it remains unclear how far along supporters of the bill are in drafting a version or what kind of backing they would get in parliament.

U Ko Ni, a legal expert and member of the National League for Democracy’s central executive committee, said it was important to have the law “in order to take action effectively and fast.”

Controlling hate speech – largely directed against Muslims – in Myanmar has proved difficult, with Facebook moderators and online campaigns failing to control the deluge on social media that has spilled out into real violence.

But questions of free speech are also relevant. Hate speech laws in Europe, drafted in the wake of the Holocaust and post-World War II anti-semitism, have been critiqued for overreaching and infringing on the right to speak one’s mind while doing little to combat prejudice.

Aung Myo Min, Director of Equality Myanmar, told the Voice he supported the proposal, but that it should be applied to all groups disseminating hate speech.

“This law should be fair,” he was quoted as saying. “The religious problem is quite bad.”

Win Ko Ko Latt, chairman of the Myanmar National Network, a hardline Buddhist group, said in an interview that it was too early to respond as “we don’t know what is included [in the legislation].”

He suggested that the government should first make sure “Shariah law” doesn’t gain a foothold in Myanmar before creating any hate speech legislation.

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