Anti-Myanmar hate speech flares in Thailand over spread of COVID

“Wherever you see Myanmar people, shoot them down,” read one Thai comment on YouTube after a surge of coronavirus cases among workers from Myanmar.

The outbreak, first detected at a seafood market near Bangkok, has prompted a surge in online hate speech as well as questions over Thailand’s treatment of millions of migrant workers.

“Myanmar people are being labelled for transmitting COVID-19, but the virus doesn’t discriminate,” said Sompong Srakaew of the Labour Protection Network, a Thai group helping migrant workers.

Shifting sentiment has had real consequences, he said, with workers from Myanmar, previously known as Burma, being blocked from buses, motorcycle taxis and offices.

One of the many incendiary comments on social media seen by Reuters called for migrant workers diagnosed with the disease to remain untreated as punishment for people that brought them into Thailand.

The rhetoric reflects a global pattern since the start of the pandemic of foreigners being blamed for spreading the virus.

Racist and abusive language

The independent Social Media Monitoring for Peace group told Reuters it found hundreds of comments classified as hate speech on YouTube with others on Facebook and Twitter.

“The comments included racist language aimed at triggering discrimination and promoting nationalism,” said the group’s Saijai Liangpunsakul.

“We’re concerned that online discrimination could translate into further discrimination and even lead to real-world violence.”

Shrimp market outbreak

Not all the social media traffic has been negative, with some Thais defending the Myanmar workers.

Government spokespeople in Thailand and Myanmar did not respond immediately to requests for comment on hate speech.

The outbreak was first detected last week at a prawn market at Samut Sakhon, barely 35 km (20 miles) from central Bangkok. Since then nearly 1,300 infections linked to the cluster have been found while thousands of people have been quarantined.

“We feel really sad that we Myanmar workers are being blamed,” said Nay Lin Thu, a 35-year-old worker from Myanmar who has now volunteered to help others.

“We are told ‘this happened because of you Myanmar’. Mostly we do not respond but some of us couldn’t contain their anger.”

Officially, Thailand has nearly 1.6 million workers from Myanmar, almost two-thirds of all migrant workers, but the real figure is higher because of illegal immigration. Most migrants are labourers or work in service industries.

“Thai people won’t take the jobs they are doing,” Taweesin Wisanuyothin, of Thailand’s COVID-19 taskforce said, as he pleaded for tolerance in a televised broadcast. “Today they are our family … Both Myanmar and Thai people are Buddhists.”

Thailand has traditionally been seen as tolerant of foreigners, but an historic enmity has been revived on social media with references to the 18th-century destruction by Burmese forces of Ayutthaya, capital of what was then known as Siam.

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