Hate speech and misinformation on social media have amplified ethnic tensions in Myanmar's Rakhine state, a US official said Friday, urging the country's "better angels" to show compassion for Rohingya Muslims who are fleeing violence in droves.
Western Rakhine, for years a hotbed of tension between Myanmar's Rohingya minority and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, has been seized by crisis since the army launched a crackdown on Rohingya militants in late August.
The operation has been so sweeping and brutal that the UN says it likely amounts to "ethnic cleansing" of the Rohingya, nearly 430,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh in under one month.
The once 1.1-million strong group are denied citizenship in mainly Buddhist Myanmar and widely viewed as foreign invaders from Bangladesh, a narrative pushed by army chief Min Aung Hlaing in regular Facebook posts.
After a three-day visit to Myanmar, including a stop in Rakhine's state capital Sittwe, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Murphy called on community leaders to condemn hate speech cascading across the web in the former junta-run nation.
"One of the newer factors adding to the complexities (in Rakhine) is the platform that social media now offers. There is a lot of hate speech, there is a lot of misinformation," Murphy told media in a telephone briefing.
He urged the "better angels" of the Myanmar people to find empathy for the Rohingya.
"What we are doing is appealing to the many, many populations in Burma... to remember their own experience and show some compassion regardless of the political complexities for the Rohingya people," Murphy said.
The lines of frail and traumatized Rohingya streaming into Bangladesh have overwhelmed aid agencies and triggered alarm from world leaders, with ramshackle camps along the border swelling into one of the largest refugee settlements in the world.
But there have been few expressions of sympathy for the Rohingya inside Myanmar, despite a shared history of abuse under the former military dictatorship.
Many in the Buddhist majority blame Rohingya militants for triggering the unrest in Rakhine and accuse foreign media and NGOs of a pro-Rohingya bias.
The latest violence -- and outpouring of global condemnation -- has seen a remarkable shift in domestic political alliances, with nationalist fervor driving those who once reviled the military to come to its defense over the Rakhine campaign.