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Myanmar Claims Facebook Partnership After Deadly Riots

A senior official in Myanmar, also known as Burma, says the country is partnering with the social media site Facebook to monitor Burmese language posts following concerns that a viral post sparked deadly sectarian clashes last week.

The aide to President Thein Sein - who did not want to be named - Wednesday said in an interview with VOA's Burmese service the government and Facebook have a plan to manage a recurring issue in Myanmar - namely the intersection of internal conflicts and social media.

"We've discussed the pressing issue that wide-spread news and information inflame conflict and generate more rumors and how they [Facebook] assist us to address the problem. Talks include technical issues. We eventually agreed to cooperate in addressing the issue with short-term, mid-term and long-term process," said the official.

Facebook declined to comment on the claims. But a spokesperson for the U.S.-based technology firm acknowledged in a written statement to VOA it has been in contact with the government of Myanmar.

Local and international media reported social media outages in Myanmar after allegations circulated online July 1 that two Muslim men raped a Buddhist women. For days after, Muslims and Buddhists fought on the streets of Mandalay, the country's second largest city, leaving two people dead, more than a dozen injured and hundreds in jail.

Myanmar President Thein Sein said earlier this week that reform efforts to expand freedom of speech and the press are at risk.

Nay Phone Latt, a blogger and former political prisoner, says he welcomes government talks with Facebook. But he expressed concern that freedom of information is at risk.

"It's more appropriate that the [monitoring] process should be handled by an independent body involving not only government officials, but Facebook and other technical experts. Spreading hate speeches online are very alarming right now and I welcome the [government's] plan. But it will be a different story if the monitoring process begins targeting dissidents and freedom of expression," said Latt.

Facebook says it explained to Myanmar that it already bans hate speech and attacks based on ethnicity and religion, among other categories of discrimination. The company added it will remove content governments identify as illegal.

While the original post has been deleted, VOA has found that screenshots (pictures of the original post) continue to be circulated online.

In 2013, U.S.-based Freedom House, a watchdog organization dedicated to the advancement of freedom globally, deemed Myanmar's Internet access "not free" due in large part to restrictions on social media. One percent of Myanmar's 55 million residents has Internet access.

The report also said that last year social media "played an undisputed role in amplifying racial and religious tensions."

The report was written in collaboration with the VOA Burmese service.