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Myanmar authorities worry over fake news in social media

Fake news. Photo: marketingweek.com. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Pan Pacific Agency | COMMUICATION AGENCY FOR PACIFICA REGIONS

NAY PYI TAW, Jan 8, 2020, Myanmar Times. For months now stories have been circulating in social media about alleged abductions of children and a drug that can knock out a person unconscious with a touch on his or her skin, Myanmar Times reported.

Authorities and observers warned the continued circulation of the stories in the social media, such as Facebook, YouTube, Whatsapp and Weibo, among others, appear to be deliberate and is sowing fear and uncertainty among people.

U Aung Nyein, a political observer, said that many false news have been circulated since the ruling National League for Democracy took over the government in 2016, apparently to destabilise the country.

“We have never heard such things before. We heard them just now. The worst is when NLD took over the government in 2016,” he said.

Dr Than Sein from the non-governmental organisation Public Health Foundation says there is no drug that can make someone unconscious just by skin contact.

“There is no such thing in the medical world,” he said, adding that the story is apparently meant to scare people.

U Nyunt Shwe, a regional legislator in Bago Region, said stories about children kidnappings and the so called “knockout drugs” or Toe Say appear meant to destabilise the country.

“It is not a normal case. There is a group that is instilling fear and destabilising our society,” he said, urging that authorities should investigate and take action against the people behind these false stories.

Many people are not taking their chances, such as Ma Zin Mar Tun, a mother with a two-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son residing in Shwe Pyi Thar township in Yangon.

“I might go crazy if my children are taken,” she said.

Ma Thwe Thwe Aye, another mother of two young children and a neighbour of Ma Zin Mar Tun, shared the same concern.

“I cannot keep my children out of my sight,” she said, adding she is living in constant fear as they are living in a highly populated area.

Police Colonel Kyaw Thiha, spokesperson of the Ministry of Home Affairs, said that so far police across the country have not recorded complaints about abducted children.

“According to the statistics here, no official complaint has been sent to a police station. However, we also see that it has been spreading on Facebook,” he said.

Police Colonel Myo Thu Soe, another Ministry of Home Affairs official, said there was no report about children being trafficked.

“There is no person who complained to the police about their children being victims of child trafficking,” he said. “There is no Anti-trafficking in Persons Law cases filed that involved children.”Monywa Aung Shin, spokesperson of the National League for Democracy, said the fake news about child abductions and Toe Say drug makes people doubt the ability of the government to keep law and order.

“Maybe a situation is created intentionally to frighten people, to make it appear that there is no rule of law in the country,” he said. “The purpose is to damage the image of the country.”

Monywa Aung Shin urged the people to cooperate with the local authorities and called on the people to maintain good relations and communications with the community in order to fight these kinds of misinformation.

“The public needs to remain vigilant as these rumors are designed to scare people. We need to expose these lies; especially as the 2020 election is approaching,” he said.

Police Colonel Kyaw Thiha, Ministry of Home Affairs spokesperson, said they are closely monitoring the situation.

“We have instructed other departments to take action if they receive report related to these false stories,” he said. “We are conducting our own investigation.”

But this false news is taking life of its own.

On November 30, a mob of more than 200 people lynched a man named Ko Ngwe Phyo in Aung Kyaukyi Su ward, in Bago Region, on suspicion of abducting children.

The incident was triggered by the false news in social media.

Ko Ngwe Phyo Aung, 27, visited his friend’s house that day. The brothers and sisters of his friends shouted at him and accused him of being a thief.

The neighbours thought Ko Ngwe Phyo Aung was accused of abducting children and he was beaten up.

During interrogation police investigator found out the man was neither a kidnapper nor a thief. He suffered several wounds in the body and lost his left eye.

“In fact, rumors of child abduction are everywhere in Bago but no one knows actual information about who was abducted or where it happened,” said U Nyunt Shwe, a regional legislator.

A similar incident happened in Min Tay village, Chaung-U township in Sagaing Region when a mentally ill man was beaten to death by a mob on suspicion that he was kidnapping children.

Who stands to benefit from the false news remains a big question.

U Aung Zaw Oo, an activist from the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters (HRDP), theorised that these false stories are politically motivated or are aimed to conceal something.

“Sometimes rumors are true. That is why, authorities should deal with it by forming a body that will look into it meticulously,” he said.

“Children are those who need special cares, therefore the government must protect them effectively under the law and they have to investigate these stories to relieve people of their anxiety,” he added.

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