I wrote so many posts that that my posts needed a post. Sorry about that.
The series this note accompanies is a work of synthesis, in which I attempt to collect up the hundreds of pieces of the overall story of Meta’s actions (and inactions) in Myanmar before and after the peak of the genocide of the Rohingya people in 2016 and 2017, and make them intelligible to a readership of English-speaking people who want to make or use an internet that doesn’t replicate these dynamics.
If you spot typos or inaccuracies, I’m reachable at erin at incisive.nu and appreciate all bug reports. Someday I may even fix up the font loading on this website.
I’m the furthest thing from a scholar of Burmese history or politics, and although my background has included working with atrocity materials in other contexts, I’m also not a genocide scholar. My aim with this series is to give mostly-western makers and users of social technology a sense of one US-based technology company’s role in what happened to just one group of people in just one place over a very limited time range. As enormously long as this series is, I’ve left out vastly more than I’ve put in, especially about the complexities of both colonial and post-colonial violence and repression in Myanmar.
If you want to get a sense of Myanmar’s history both generally and as it relates to oppression of the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities, I really like Carlos Sardiña Galache’s The Burmese Labyrinth (Verso, 2020) and Thant Myint-U’s The Hidden History of Burma (WW Norton, 2019).
This is a series about a US technology company’s role in a genocide, so it describes the events leading up to and constituting the genocide.
I’ve tried to be really careful about what makes it into the text, and I haven’t included any graphic descriptions or images—or any images of traumatized fleeing refugees, for that matter.
Within the text of my posts, I warn readers before getting into particularly rough sections dealing with events in Myanmar. But I do say, in general terms, what happened, which was about as bad as anything can be. The sources I cite range from high-level and abstract to literal catalogs of atrocities—and even some of the regular newspaper reporting includes images that, if you look at them closely, may haunt you. If you decide to get into the source documentation and you don’t have experience working with atrocity material, you might want to keep the Tetris intervention handy.
I also quote examples of anti-Rohingya and anti-Islamic hate speech throughout the series, some of which include terms that qualify as slurs and some of which are just horrible things to say.
It’s been really hard to figure out what to call things in a story about Meta’s actions in Myanmar—or should that be Facebook’s actions in Burma?
When I talk about the platform, I say “Facebook,” but when I talk about the company that runs Facebook, I say “Meta,” no matter what they were called at the point in history I’m looking at. There’s a good argument to be made for just calling them Facebook all the way through.
Is it silly to talk about Meta in 2013, when the company was still called Facebook? Probably! But so are corporate rebranding exercises. Also, we do this with humans all the time, and I’m pretty committed to calling people and entities what they ask to be called.
Let this be my tiny part in making sure that the construct called Meta can’t escape responsibility for what the construct called Facebook did.
When I talk about Myanmar, I say “Myanmar,” not “Burma,” because that’s what the country’s government calls the country in English and what most other countries and international bodies use. There are some linguistic complexities and tangled history, and many people from Myanmar still use “Burma” in English-language text. As a white American, I think using colonial-period names in my work on principle would be a little weird, so I’m erring on the side of “use the name the entity requests.”
My own government refuses to write “Myanmar” in official documents because the Burmese government that switched from using “Burma” to “Myanmar” as the official English name was a military government that took control of the country in a coup in 1962. Given the United States’ history of supporting both military governments and coups elsewhere in the world, I’m…not going to say anything else about that.
Things get trickier, though, in referring to people from Myanmar, and to the most commonly spoken language. Technically, “Myanma” is the official term for people who live in Myanmar, inclusive of both the Bamar ethnic majority and the officially recognized ethnic minorities, but in all my reading for this series, I encountered that exact usage about three times, total. Similarly, the most commonly spoken language in Myanmar is officially “the Myanmar language,” but in practice, the usage is vanishingly rare, so I use “Burmese” in both cases.
More place and ethnicity names: The city formerly known as Rangoon is now Yangon. Arakan State and the Arakan ethnicity are now Rakhine State and the Rahkine ethnicity, but my sources are all over the place, so some quoted material still uses the old terms.
Personal names: Burmese-language personal names can be tricky for western readers—there are multiple formulations of many names, and a person’s name isn’t divided into given name and surname/family name. I’ve given the most common formulation of Burmese people’s names, and provide them in full each time they come up, because shortening them to a faux-surname would be weird.
The “Ashin” in “Ashin Wirathu” is an honorific used for monks and certain other honored figures, so I’ve dropped it after the first reference. In quotations and cited sources, you’ll also see “U Wirathu”‚ and “U” here is an honorific use of “uncle.” (Relatedly, the “Daw” in “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi” is the “auntie” honorific.)
Sources and citations
I’ve cited sources very heavily in this series because I want to provide a highly explorable web of information, and because I think the subject demands attention to sourcing. And because all of this stuff came from other people and they deserve credit. I’ve done a lot of plain old hyperlinking as well, but the footnotes in each post provide the most complete set of references. I use a roughly Chicago-style citation method, but with titles first instead of authors because a lot of my references lack designated authors and also it’s my website and I can do whatever I want.
I quote from a lot of US- and UK-based media sources. When I do, I lean on in-depth investigative reporting rather than more general explainery coverage. I also rely heavily on the work of the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, and on reporting and research from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Médicins Sans Frontières.
A sidenote: One of the things I did to get up to speed for this series was watch a lot of video, including interviews with physically scarred Rohingya women and children in refugee camps, as well as footage of incidents of violence in Rahkine State. I also read detailed reports on specific incidents in Myanmar, because I wanted to make sure that I understood the nature of the evidence before making claims. I’m not going to discuss any of that except to say that what I saw and read provided enough evidence for me to feel very secure citing the sources I’ve cited.
Especially in the third and fourth posts in this series, I use a lot of material from internal Meta documents disclosed by whistleblowers. Meta responds to all whistleblower disclosures with blanket denials, and sometimes frankly absurd statements meant to act, I think, as radar chaff. Having read a bunch of these responses, I don’t think they actually add anything at all to the conversation, so I rarely quote from them, but I do link to some in footnotes.
Also, I’ve included views from as many Burmese civil-society and digital-rights people as I could cram in, along with first-hand perspectives from several western journalists and tech people who spent time in Myanmar. I’ve tried to rely on local, Burmese-speaking sources for ground truths about the interaction of the internet with communal and state violence, and include western perspectives for backup and a sense of the vibes.
I deal with pieces of the history of the Rohingya at various points throughout the series, so here I will confine myself to terminology and the basic facts of Rohingya existence.
The most deeply researched accounts I’ve read about the history of the Rohingya in Rakhine State agree that there have been population flows across what is now the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh for centuries, and that the pre-2016 Rohingya population in Rakhine has roots reflecting both longstanding local populations and periodic inflows from what is now Bangladesh. These inflows included people “originally” from what is now Rakhine State in Myanmar, who’d been forced to migrate north and later returned, as well as people “originally” from the area now known as Bangladesh.
Claims that the Rohingya are “illegal Bengali immigrants” were widely accepted in Myanmar before the 2021 coup, but they’re best understood as political maneuvering intended to demonize an ethnic group, not statements of fact.
While we’re on the subject, it’s my opinion that borders are not a coherent way of describing ancestry and belonging, or of parceling out the obligation to treat people like humans.
Friday, September 29: Fixed some typos in this post, expanded content warnings in this post and Part I to explicitly include hate speech and ethnic slurs, and refined the language in the section in this post that deals with using “Burma” vs. “Myanmar.” I’ve also reorganized some of the reading recommendations in this post and tried to make explicit some of the many things that I’m necessarily leaving out. Thank you to readers for raising flags about these issues.
Saturday, September 30: Posted Part II, fixed a couple of typos throughout and one inexplicable word substitution in Part II (a random insert of “Malaysian,” which shouldn’t be in the post at all). Thank you to everyone who reported!
Friday, October 6: Posted Part III. Fixed several typos in the other two parts and changed some ambiguous phasing to clarify Arturo Bejar’s position in the Facebook org chart. Thank you to all reporters of errors! I’m sure I’ve made several more.
Friday, October 13: Posted Part IV. Fixed yet more typos.
Monday, October 16: Posted the series home and acknowledgements post. Fixed yet more typos, probably.