Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, has finally made her debut on Facebook. If managed carefully, this would help to rally efforts to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
As Covid-19 infections spread across the globe, social media has become both a boon and a bane to many experiencing disruptions in their daily life. On one hand, social media enables one to stay connected with family and friends, thus alleviating the strain of shutdowns and stay-at-home orders. On the other hand, the anxiety associated with constant monitoring of the number of infections and deaths remains. Sifting through the ‘noise’ of false or mis-information to find the correct ‘signals’ can leave even seasoned social media users reeling.
In efforts to separate the signal from the noise, various leaders have used their social media presence to share real-time updates on the situation in their respective countries, and to add a voice of encouragement to citizens and residents.
Enter Myanmar’s State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
On April 1, Myanmar Facebook users saw the country’s de facto leader’s personal Facebook account go live in the afternoon. The date is noteworthy, due more to past events associated with the National League for Democracy (NLD). Myanmar held by-elections in 2012 and 2017 on April 1. The 2012 by-elections saw the then opposition NLD win all 45 parliamentary seats up for grabs. In 2017, the NLD as the ruling party still garnered a majority of 19 vacant parliamentary seats at central and state levels.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s sole post (at this time of writing) was a concise declaration of her decision to be part of the Facebook sphere.
Facebook ကိုသုံးဖို့ဆန္ဒလုံးဝမရှိခဲ့ပါ။ ဒီအချိန်မှာတော့ COVID-19 စိန်ခေါ်မှုတွေနဲ့ပတ်သက်ပြီးပြည်သူတွေနဲ့မြန်မြန်ဆန်ဆန်ထိထိရောက်ရောက်ဆက်သွယ်နိုင်ဖို့သုံးလိုက်ပါတယ်။
“I had no desire to use Facebook. However, at this time, I have started [using Facebook] in order to communicate quickly and effectively with the people regarding Covid-19 challenges.” (author’s translation)
In Myanmar, one either “uses”, “plays” or “goes on” Facebook. The choice of verb indicates the individual’s intent of using the app. Daw Suu’s intentional use of the verb “use” for her decision to join Facebook indicates deliberation. As she stated, it was to be able to communicate in a more direct manner on Covid-19 concerns.
Her post uses Unicode font. This is a nuance that may be lost on international audiences. Her target audience is the Myanmar people, and she is upholding her government’s decision made in 2019 to switch to Unicode for the Myanmar language font. This decision was met with some resistance from a public long used to communicating in Zawgyi font which was incompatible with widespread universal coding standards globally. Daw Suu had to broadcast a public appeal to make the switch to Unicode.
Her public messaging – apart from the official statements and reports that are broadcast via state media channels and shared on the official social media pages of the government, including the State Counsellor’s Office – thus has a consistent core: to rally the public around an important aim or objective.
Myanmar’s most prominent septuagenarian’s Facebook debut in the time of the coronavirus occasions the following interpretations and suggestions.
Myanmar’s Facebook-sphere has been inundated with differing opinions on the measures to mitigate the coronavirus spread. Seeing mounting numbers globally, and the threat of a second wave in Asian countries that had earlier suppressed the spread, many Myanmar Facebook users have called for stricter enforcement of shutdowns and social distancing. There are also increasing calls for considering the situation of the lower-income communities, migrants, and small businesses adversely affected by the shutdowns. Amidst the different state- and community-level responses, various social media posts on traditional remedies to ward off the virus, or heighten infection fears, have resulted in injuries and confusion.
Daw Suu is in a unique position to counter false information on Covid-19 and ensure the mitigation of the pandemic’s social consequences. Her messaging, if well-coordinated with on-the-ground initiatives by various government entities, can help the authorities manage potential chaotic situations, and “shame” those flouting distancing or quarantine measures.
Messaging will be centered currently on the common challenge of Covid-19, which she had started earlier with a public video on “washing hands together”. Daw Suu’s Facebook platform can also be used as a force multiplier in Myanmar’s election year. With carefully calibrated messaging, the NLD’s election prospects can be further boosted. Across Myanmar, people are expecting her to weigh in on many concerns besetting various communities. Already, the comment thread on her first Facebook post show complaints about freedom of expression, the internet shut-down in Rakhine State, and countless memes, including a doctored image of the State Counsellor “flipping the bird.” A majority of the comments, however, continue to be positive, welcoming “A-May” (Mother) Suu to the world’s largest social networking site.
The current personal page settings allow visitors to see who are Daw Suu’s Facebook friends. The unfettered nature of comments by Myanmar’s Facebook “warriors” impels a consideration for shifting the current settings to a public page, so that important signals from public feedback will not be missed. Maintaining a public Facebook page does not require having to deal with requests to be “friends” on Facebook. To this end, the Office of the State Counsellor, if not already doing so, will need a team of social media savvy communicators to assist with messaging, and to manage the administration of the page. Daw Suu’s ASEAN counterparts who have made earlier forays into the social media scene, will have much experience (and commiserations) to share, in welcoming her to Facebook.
Moe Thuzar is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.