In Myanmar, interethnic tensions have improved in the post-coup era as more and more resistance leaders join the call to fight the junta. This shared opposition to military rule has left many people hopeful for the prospect of broader national cohesion in a country that has been beset by various civil and ethnic conflicts for decades. But this moment of national cohesion can also obscure the complex histories and intercommunal grievances that remain unresolved — and a recent massacre in Southern Shan State demonstrates that the military’s violence still has the power to sow discord among a fragmented resistance movement.

Protesters and security forces facing off in Yangon, Myanmar. February 9, 2021. (The New York Times)
Protesters and security forces facing off in Yangon, Myanmar. February 9, 2021. (The New York Times)

While evidence clearly pointed toward the junta as the perpetrators of the March 11 massacre, a flood of misinformation and hate speech in the aftermath inflamed local ethno-religious tensions between the region’s Pa-O and Karenni ethnic groups. With a disparate array of resistance groups and actors still formulating a coordinated system for fighting the junta, intercommunal flashpoints like the recent massacre have the potential to derail this fragile coalition and allow the military to divide their opposition. 

The Nam nein Massacre

On March 11, 21 civilians were murdered at Nam nein monastery in Pinlaung township. The victims included a woman, three Buddhist monks and 18 men — all of whom were horrifically tortured before being shot and killed.

The day after the massacre, graphic photos from Nam nein circulated on a Telegram channel of junta supporters. The captions praised the Myanmar military for supposedly killing members of the Karenni People’s Defense Forces — the constellation of local armed resistance groups.

Although the captions identified the dead as armed combatants, closer inspection clearly showed that they were civilians, and that guns had been planted to make them appear armed post-massacre. On March 14, the military doubled down on the lie, with Major General Zaw Min Tun telling a military media outlet that Myanmar military columns had seized dead bodies and arms at Nam nein, offering clear evidence that the Myanmar military was responsible for this massacre.

Key resistance stakeholders from the region — including the Karenni National Defense Force (KNDF), Pa-O National Defense Force, Pa-O National Liberation Organization and the Southern Shan Local Revolution Union — all released statements condemning the violence. Additionally, the National Unity Government, Karenni State Consultative Council and Pa-O National Federal Council issued a joint statement condemning the massacre by the military while pledging justice for the victims and their families.

Hate Speech and Misinformation in the Aftermath

Despite evidence clearly showing that the Myanmar military was the perpetrator, and broad condemnation from resistance organizations, the junta-aligned Pa-O National Organization (PNO) accused the KNDF of the killing. By disseminating misinformation and hate speech in the immediate aftermath, the military-aligned PNO sought to sow ethno-religious discord between the Buddhist Pa-O community and Christian Karenni community.

Just days after the massacre, the PNO organized a rally of 20,000 people denouncing the KNDF and circulated pamphlets with images of the deceased and burning villages. The PNO led chants including “media conceals true news — don’t want” and “terrorists who unlawfully steal the Pa-O people’s properties — don’t want.”

Under the hot sun, a Pa-O monk spoke to the rally and characterized the Karenni people as a lower race, describing the KNDF and the Peoples’ Defense Forces broadly as worse than the Islamic State. Another Pa-O monk called for the burning of Karenni villages if the KNDF did not stop the alleged violence, declaring: “They say it is not a religious war. But our three monks have died. And they say it is not a racial war. But all the people [who] died were our Pa-O people. All the burned villages were our Pa-O villages.”

These alarming speeches carried themes of ethnic hierarchy, Buddhist nationalism and zealous hatred. Ethno-religious violence in Southern Shan State and Karenni State is rare, especially when compared to the horrific incidents of intercommunal violence in places like Rakhine State and Meiktila.

But there are latent tensions in Southern Shan State and neighbouring Karenni State that could be triggered at any time. The massacre in Nam nein and the ensuing misinformation effort could be the spark to ignite these latent tensions and fracture the fragile resistance movement. This fragility remains salient as the Myanmar military and its proxy militias such as the PNO have recently expanded their offensive into Pa-O territory.

Reconciling Historical Ethno-Religious Divides

The current tensions between the Buddhist Pa-O and the Christian Karenni are recent developments in the conflict landscape. But they represent larger religious tensions that far pre-date the 2021 coup.

Myanmar has an infamous history of horrific ethnic discrimination, such as the dehumanizing treatment of the Rohingya. Cases of hate speech have been associated with ethnic mob violence such as the 2014 riots in Mandalay, and data analysis from 2015 measured high levels of ethnic and religious intolerance across Myanmar.

In the middle of this are the Christian Karenni, who represent a multi-faceted minority that has long-struggled to achieve political rights and has long-endured violence from the Myanmar military. Buddhist majority governance institutions have long operated discriminatory practices toward religious minorities, and the military junta has a significant relationship with the rise of Buddhist nationalism. This makes the use of Buddhist nationalist language among non-military actors, like the rally organized by the PNO, of particular concern, and such instances should be closely observed as the fragmented resistance movement tries to coalesce.

The situation has improved somewhat since the 2021 coup, as public opinion surveys conducted on Facebook indicate broadly improved perceptions of different ethnic groups, particularly the Rohingya — and especially among young people.

But while improvements in interethnic relations and perceptions are encouraging, the PNO rallies around Nam nein remind us of the complexity of intercommunal dynamics. It’s also important to note when referencing post-coup public opinion data, that the surveys are often restricted to the few areas with internet access, limiting the ability to capture a sample representative of the public writ large.

Further, public perception of the Myanmar military’s violence has serious implications for national cohesion. When the military’s violence is framed as a shared threat among different ethnic groups, this actually can — somewhat counterintuitively — increase negative perceptions of other ethnic groups. The Nam nien massacre and its aftermath is a stark reminder of this complex reality.

The discussions around national cohesion against the junta undoubtedly inspire hope. Even more, unity among the resistance will be necessary for the pro-democracy movement to prevail in the conflict. But we should avoid making blanket assessments of complex questions regarding identity, grief and loss, as this can only weaken our understanding of the conflict.

Combatting Hate Speech and Misinformation

In the near term, combating hate speech and misinformation while navigating complex histories of inter-communal violence is important for maintaining support for the resistance. And in the long term, successfully addressing these challenges will offer a strong foundation for building an inclusive federal democracy. 

In Southern Shan State, the international community should coordinate with local Pa-O and Karenni organizations to provide humanitarian support for those displaced by violence. Pa-O and Karenni civil society and religious organizations should utilize their influential roles to coordinate campaigns against hate speech and misinformation and to promote stronger ties among their community. Further, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, should take comprehensive action to remove hate speech and misinformation on the site, as social media represents a major avenue through which these kinds of intercommunal tensions are sparked.

More broadly, the international community and resistance movement should remain vigilant to on-going patterns of hate speech and misinformation and their potential to exacerbate inter-communal tensions amid the war. Long-term actions to combat them could include the following:

  • The promotion of digital literacy, especially in remote and rural areas, to strengthen the capacity of the public to identify hate speech and misinformation.
  • The establishment of an independent investigation team to secure justice. This could be done by the National Unity Government, in close coordination with local civil society organizations representing both the Pa-O and Karenni communities, to serve as a fact-finding mission and as a reconciliation opportunity through intercommunal dialogue. Right now, the trading of accusations and one-sided statements causes more harm than good, as the Nam nein massacre shows.
  • Resistance actors should engage with other Pa-O actors, not only the resistance-aligned Pa-O organizations like the Pa-O National Federal Council, to reduce further polarization and to search for common ground. For example, while the PNO is roughly aligned with the junta, the PNO has no official or rigid policy for engagement, meaning that there is room for possible dialogue going forward.
  • The international community should look for entry points to support justice and peace in the region. In so doing, inclusiveness and transparency should be prioritized to avoid further division and distrust among or between any groups. Areas of support can include transitional justice or development in the region.

Narratives that manipulate the military’s violence to sow division and hatred must be taken seriously. This is the moment when Myanmar needs to build national cohesion across historically divided peoples — not just for the sake of consolidating the country’s various resistance groups, but to lay the groundwork for a peaceful democratic future. 

Arthur Klark is a researcher and program manager in Myanmar.

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