Civil society groups are to form a network to oppose hate speech throughout the country, said sources at a workshop held last week to promote peace while protecting freedom of expression.

The workshop, held at Yangon’s Inya Lake Hotel on June 17-18, brought together participants from India, Bosnia, Cambodia, Nigeria, Hungary, Egypt, Kenya and Indonesia to discuss the role of hate speech in conflict and how to respect freedom of speech. Local participants came from Meiktila, Lashio, Nattalin, Mawlamyine, and Rakhine and Kachin States.

U Lwin Ko Latt, of the Yangon School of Political Science, spoke of the distinction between a “rights-based” and an “issue-based” approach to problems. He said troublemakers had fanned the flames on both sides of the Buddhist-Muslim conflict that had spread from Rakhine State to other parts of the country.

“We have to make people at the grassroots level understand that they are being targeted to worsen the problems,” he said.

Participants suggested forming a national network to raise awareness about hate speech, promote individual understanding for conflict resolution and apply healing mechanisms. Those concerned would include government officials, religious, community and political leaders, media and civil society.

“We can’t neglect the government because it plays a key role, despite failing in responsibility on many occasions,” said U Naing Oo of the Community Response Group. “We need trust and cooperation with them.”

The venerable U Tayza Dipati of Golden Lion Monastic Education School said it was critical to convince the political, religious and community leaders to be careful of the words they used. “I think some of the speech that leaders use is dangerous,” he said. “People become the victims of hate speech if they are exposed to hatred, which makes it easy for troublemakers to achieve their purpose.”

Legal expert U Khin Maung Cho said the law should be more responsive, and the judiciary should be prepared to take action at critical junctures. “In some cases, as with the Rakhine conflict, the government could have taken action under section 144 before the crisis broke out, but it did not. People should be aware of the political motives that create many of the problems in this country,” he said.

U Soe Moe Aye, a participant from Yangon, asked, “Which comes first – hate speech or conflict? Sometimes we ignore root causes and react to events without considering the impact of our actions.”

Chinmayi Arun, the research director of the Centre for Communication and Governance at the National Law University, Delhi, said the appearance of hate speech was not just an isolated instance before the eruption of violence in the community, but was part of a more complex phenomenon.

Malavika Jayaram, a legal expert from India, cautioned participants that they should not “expect the law to solve all the problems”.

“Hate speech is not the problem in itself. If you don’t see where the hatred is coming from, if you don’t address the root problem, then it won’t go away. As long as you are not educated about certain things, you will not create a level playing field,” she said.

“Force politicians and governments to be transparent, shine the light on them, rather than on the poor and the powerless,” she said, adding that attention should be paid to the entire ecosystem within which hate speech becomes possible.

Susan Benesch, the founder and director of the Dangerous Speech Project, said the workshop aimed to prevent violence, protect democracy and freedom of expression, and begin to build communities of peoples from different countries in an effort to achieve this goal.

She said she aimed to explore methods to counter inflammatory speech that inspired group violence without impinging on freedom of expression.