“Wherever you see people in Myanmar, shoot them down,” read a Thai comment on YouTube following a spate of coronavirus cases among Myanmar workers.
The outbreak, first spotted at a fish market near Bangkok, has sparked a surge in online hate speech, as well as questions about Thailand’s treatment of millions of migrant workers.
“People in Myanmar are flagged for transmitting COVID-19, but the virus does not discriminate,” said Sompong Srakaew of the Labor Protection Network, a Thai group that helps migrant workers.
The change in sentiment had real ramifications, he said, as workers from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, were blocked from buses, motorcycle taxis and offices.
One of the many fire comments on social media that Reuters saw called for migrant workers diagnosed with the disease to be left untreated as punishment for people who brought them to Thailand.
The rhetoric reflects a global pattern since the pandemic began, with foreigners being held responsible for spreading the virus.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said this week that illegal immigration was behind the outbreak in a country that has controlled COVID-19, despite Thailand’s virus task force asking for sympathy for immigrants.
Racist and Abusive Language
The independent Social Media Monitoring for Peace group told Reuters it had found hundreds of comments classified as hate speech on YouTube, others on Facebook and Twitter.
“The comments contained racist language intended to incite discrimination and promote nationalism,” said Saijai Liangpunsakul of the group.
“We fear that online discrimination could lead to further discrimination and even to real violence.”
After Reuters flagged some posts, Facebook said it removed several for violating its hate speech guidelines.
“We know that hate speech directed against vulnerable communities can be the most damaging,” a Facebook spokesman said, saying his technology detected 95 percent of hate speech.
Facebook has been heavily criticized for its role in spreading hate speech that sparked violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar in 2017, and has since invested in systems that can quickly detect and remove such content.
Twitter said it was looking into the problem. YouTube did not respond to requests for comments.
Outbreak of the shrimp market
Not all social media traffic was negative, with some Thais defending Myanmar workers.
Government spokesmen in Thailand and Myanmar did not immediately respond to requests for comments on hate speech.
The outbreak was first spotted last week at a shrimp market in Samut Sakhon, barely 35 km from central Bangkok. Since then, nearly 1,300 cluster-related infections have been found while thousands of people have been quarantined.
“We are really sad that we are being accused workers in Myanmar,” said Nay Lin Thu, a 35-year-old Myanmar worker who has now volunteered to help others.
“We are told that this happened because of you in Myanmar. Most of the time we don’t answer, but some of us couldn’t contain our anger. “
Officially, Thailand has nearly 1.6 million Myanmar workers, nearly two-thirds of all migrant workers, but the real number is higher due to illegal immigration. Most of the migrants are manual workers or work in the service industry.
“The Thais will not accept their work,” said Taweesin Wisanuyothin of the Thai COVID-19 task force when he advocated tolerance on a television show. “Today they are our family … Both Myanmar and Thais are Buddhists.”
Thailand has traditionally been viewed as tolerant of foreigners, but a historical hostility has been revived on social media pointing to the destruction of Ayutthaya, the capital of what was then Siam, by Burmese forces in the 18th century.
Myanmar has suffered a much more severe coronavirus outbreak, with more than 2,500 deaths from nearly 120,000 confirmed cases compared to 60 deaths from at least 5,800 cases in Thailand.
How the new cases first appeared in Thailand is unclear.
Similar outbreaks among migrant workers living close together in Malaysia and Singapore showed how easily the virus can spread undetected in healthy young people with few symptoms. In Thailand, COVID was first detected in a 67-year-old woman.
Although Thailand reported few local transmissions in recent months, Myanmar had discovered cases in citizens returning from Thailand.
“Our verdict is that there were silent transport companies in Thailand,” said Sein Htay of the Yangon-based Migrant Worker Rights Network. “The living conditions for Myanmar workers are difficult for social distancing with three or four to a room.”
Despite allegations against Myanmar workers of illegally crossing the border, Thais have also done so.
A previous coronavirus horror flared recently when several Thai women returned home after an outbreak at the nightclub they worked at in Myanmar, some through illegal border crossings.