revenge porn has become a political weapon in myanmar - Revenge Porn Has Become a Political Weapon in Myanmar

Every three or four days in Myanmar, an infamous Telegram account reappears. The account has been taken down many times, usually after being reported for posting sexually explicit images. But each time it is removed, it has sprung up again shortly after in a different guise. The account belongs to Han Nyein Oo, once considered one of the main sources for celebrity gossip and yellow journalism in Myanmar. But these days, the contents are not about celebrities, as before. Instead, it’s to distribute intimate photos – both real and faked – of young female activists opposing Myanmar’s February military coup.

Since the Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw, overthrew the country’s elected civilian government, revenge porn has become a weapon employed used by both the military junta and its opponents, who are currently engaged in a heated war of attrition.

In early February, a week after the military overthrew Myanmar’s elected government, the daughter of a  minister on the junta’s State Administration Council (SAC) became the first well-known victim of this tactic. Explicit videos and photos of the woman were well circulated and intentionally spread by opponents of the coup. In subsequent weeks, the same thing happened to other women who were labelled as sympathizers of the military regime, or failed to speak out sufficiently in opposition to it, in what quickly became known to anti-coup protesters as “social punishment” campaigns.

Since the coup, numbers of “social punishment” pages have sprang up on Facebook and Telegram, which have targeted hundreds of women, from celebrities to teenage university students. The pages frequently publish women’s addresses and other personal information, and revenge porn is always part of the mix. Many opponents of the military junta have justified the sharing of these images and information on the grounds that “everything is fair and justified when the people’s voice is ignored and invalidated.”

In this way of thinking, a decent person’s basic morality and ethics are justified according to the righteousness of the political cause for which they stand. While the anti-coup resistance has seen efforts by Myanmar women’s rights organizations to challenge the patriarchy underpinning conservative authoritarianism – one good example is the Sarong Campaign – such efforts undercut this progress, demonstrating that patriarchal norms continue to be weaponized – by both sides of Myanmar’s political struggle.

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For decades, rape as a weapon of war in frontier Myanmar has been amply documented, as has the use other forms of sexual assault. Similar, if less physical, tactics have now migrated into the portable devices that millions of Myanmar people now carrying around with them. Indeed, in many ways this has magnified the impact on women as a whole, as participation in social punishment campaigns is just a click away.

Spiced up with the political justifications and messaging, Myanmar’s current crisis has allowed this human indecency to flourish. In the six months since the coup, thousands of women have been arrested, sexually assaulted, and socially marginalized in the name of a political cause. This number will increase in the upcoming months as the struggle between the military regime and those fighting for an inclusive federal democracy drags on.

No doubt, the anti-coup movement has done a lot take its fight beyond opposition to the authoritarian regime, to challenge the patriarchal social system that underlies it, and to reject the social norms that have limited Myanmar’s women for centuries. At the same time, it is also true that it has failed to protect the dignity of women, regardless on which side of the political divide they stand. Dignity is not a priority for the military regime, but it should be a core value of the pro-democracy cause. It is never too late for those seeking a more democratic and inclusive Myanmar to take a stand against the use of revenge porn as a political weapon.

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