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Anti-Myanmar hate speech flares up in Thailand over coronavirus cases

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
People line up to be tested for COVID-19 at a seafood market in Samut Sakhon, Thailand, on December 19, 2020, after some new cases of local infections were detected and linked to a vendor at the market. (Photo by AFP)

A surge of coronavirus cases among Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand has prompted a flare-up in online hate speech against them.

“Wherever you see Myanmar people, shoot them down,” read one Thai comment on YouTube, after an outbreak was first detected at a seafood market near the capital, Bangkok.

The outbreak started at a shrimp market at Samut Sakhon Province, southwest of Bangkok on Friday. The first confirmed case was a 67-year-old woman who was a vendor at the market.

Since then, nearly 1,300 infections linked to the market have been found and thousands of people have been quarantined.

Thailand’s biggest seafood market and the surrounding area were locked down Saturday in an attempt to contain the outbreak.

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

He also said workers from Myanmar are being blocked from buses, motorcycle taxis, and offices.

“We feel really sad that we Myanmar workers are being blamed,” said a worker from Myanmar. “We are told, ‘This happened because of you, Myanmar.’ Mostly we do not respond but some of us couldn’t contain their anger.”

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

Saijai Liangpunsakul, of the independent Social Media Monitoring for Peace group, told Reuters his group had 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,” he said. “We’re concerned that online discrimination could translate into further discrimination and even lead to real-world violence.”

After Reuters flagged some posts, Facebook said it had removed several for violating hate speech policies.

“We know that hate speech targeted towards vulnerable communities can be the most harmful,” an unnamed Facebook spokesperson said, adding that its technology detected 95% of the hate speech.

Facebook has previously come under heavy criticism for failing to act on hate speech amid the escalation of violence against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar in 2017.

Social media giant Twitter has said it is looking into the issue.

The latest rhetoric against Myanmarese migrant workers reflects a global pattern since the start of the pandemic of foreigners being blamed for spreading the virus.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha said this week that illegal immigration was behind the outbreak in a country that had brought COVID-19 under control.

This is while Taweesin Wisanuyothin, of Thailand’s COVID-19 task force, has appealed for sympathy for immigrants in a televised broadcast, saying, “Today they are our family.”

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 laborers or work in service industries.

Despite being just the second country to register an infection — after China — Thailand had escaped the worst of the pandemic, with just over 5,800 cases and 60 deaths so far.

Myanmar has suffered a much more severe outbreak of the coronavirus, with over 2,500 dead from nearly 120,000 confirmed cases.

Although Thailand has reported few local transmissions in recent months, Myanmar had detected cases in citizens returning from Thailand.

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