Pointing automatic weapons and staring menacingly into the camera, Myanmar security forces are turning to TikTok to threaten anti-coup protesters, in videos rights monitors want removed to avoid fueling an increasingly deadly crackdown.
At least 30 people have been killed since the ouster of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during the Feb. 1 coup, with most of the deaths occurring over the past five days. As shootings and beatings continue offline, digital rights monitors and journalists have discovered a disturbingly high number of threatening videos on TikTok, which is more known for harmless pranks about falling landmarks and “hot girl shit” memes.
In one seen by VICE World News that has since been taken down, two men dressed in military uniforms filmed themselves pointing their rifles at the camera while chanting: “What are you gonna do if your ass is itchy? We have to shoot.” In Burmese, the phrase “ass is itchy” is used to describe someone who does something they should not be doing.
The identities of the men in the videos could not be independently verified.
In another video uploaded to TikTok, a man who appears to be a soldier warned his viewers to “protest peacefully” or suffer the consequences.
“We have to shoot this. Not rubber bullets. See... real ones,” he said while pulling out a loaded magazine from his rifle.
In a separate TikTok video seemingly taken by yet another soldier, similar gestures and threats were made. “At 8 p.m., we will make the dogs run away. You like it? I don’t care,” he warned.
Digital rights activist Htaike Htaike Aung said on Twitter this week that hundreds of similar videos had been discovered. She called on TikTok to take action and remove the brazen calls to violence.
Myanmar researcher John Quinley with Fortify Rights told VICE World News that TikTok “should not allow any instances of incitement to violence on its platform and should urgently remove such content.”
Several activists on Twitter, which has become the go-to platform for the revolt, are also calling on the company to take the TikTok videos down for spreading hate speech. The demands bear a resemblance to those previously directed at Facebook, which has long struggled to control online hate speech that in 2017 spilled over into real atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
Since the coup, Facebook has taken all military and military-related accounts off its platform. The move is a step up from 2018, when Facebook banned commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing due to the army-led persecution of Rohingya Muslims. Min Aung Hlaing is now running the country as the head of the State Administrative Council, the name for the new military junta.
TikTok gained popularity in Myanmar during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Facebook’s harder line against the Myanmar military may be a bigger reason why soldiers have migrated to the platform to broadcast threats.
In a statement to VICE World News, TikTok said that it is “committed to promoting a safe and welcoming app environment” on its platform, but did not comment directly on the videos featuring Myanmar security forces.
“We have clear Community Guidelines that state we do not allow content that incites violence or misinformation that causes harm to individuals, our community, or the larger public. TikTok will continue to follow these principles globally,” the statement said.