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Hackers Claim Myanmar Magazine Supports Jihad, Wish Everyone an (Early) Happy Halloween

Of the many recent fear-mongering statements about the threat of radical Islam, the one hackers put on Myanmar’s Irrawaddy magazine’s website on Thursday was among the strangest. "Irrawaddy supports Jihad and Radical Muslims. For the defend of Muslims and Allah, Irrawaddy have shown attacking Buddhists and others Non-Muslims with Media News," read the message — ...

Screenshot via www.irrawaddy.org
Screenshot via www.irrawaddy.org

Of the many recent fear-mongering statements about the threat of radical Islam, the one hackers put on Myanmar’s Irrawaddy magazine’s website on Thursday was among the strangest.

"Irrawaddy supports Jihad and Radical Muslims. For the defend of Muslims and Allah, Irrawaddy have shown attacking Buddhists and others Non-Muslims with Media News," read the message — since removed — on the Irrawaddy’s homepage. "Therefore, BLINK HACKER GROUP (BHG) take site page down with so called INTERNET FREEDOM OF HACKING. Buahahhaa…. Happy Halloween knock your door first :)" [sic].

The hacking was apparently provoked by an article the pro-democracy Irrawaddy posted on Wednesday, which raised concerns about a cooperation agreement between the radical Buddhist 969 movement in Myanmar, formerly called Burma, and Sri Lanka’s equally radical Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) Buddhist group. Both groups have been linked to deadly attacks on Muslims in their respective countries. In the agreement, they pledged "collective actions" against "incursions taking place under the guise of secular, multicultural and other liberal notions that are directly impacting on the Buddhist ethos and space." The Irrawaddy article, which noted the ominous overtones of such a pact, evidently incensed the hackers, who seem to sympathize with the cause of militant Buddhism. "The Irrawaddy group have too many attempts at attacking Buddhism with so called FREEDOM OF SPEECH without Journalism ethics," they wrote on the magazine’s website.

Many Myanmar news websites have been hacked, but this attack comes at a time when anti-Muslim sentiment is increasing across Myanmar. And that trend may prove very useful for the government, said Jennifer Quigley, president of the U.S. Campaign for Burma advocacy group. With what are scheduled to be potentially the first democratic general elections recognized in Myanmar since 1960 a little more than a year away, Myanmar’s junta government is trying to gain support from a wide range of groups that have traditionally chafed under the regime’s dictatorship, she said. These include many of Myanmar’s armed ethnic minorities, and in a radio address on Wednesday, President Thein Sein highlighted the importance of coming to a cease-fire with these groups before the elections. Faced with a tough struggle for unity, "Buddhist nationalism is the issue that the government is using to get the majority of the population on their side," Quigley said.

It’s unclear whether the Buddhist nationalist sentiment conveyed in the Irrawaddy‘s hacking — not its first — was part of a broader strategy. The self-styled Blink Hacker Group, whose members’ identity is unknown, writes on its Facebook page: "We are not Government hackers nor Anti-Gov hackers," and has also claimed attacks on governmental sites.

But Aung Zaw, the Irrawaddy‘s founder and editor, wasn’t so sure. "It doesn’t mean they are anti-regime," he said. Although he didn’t know who the hackers were or where they were based, he said the Irrawaddy seemed to have been targeted in the past for casting the government in a bad light. "The regime people are very active in cyber warfare, in social media and have resources and pushing religious violence, so we wonder who are the real culprits!"

Elsewhere in the region this week, a Cambodian court freed two members of a local offshoot of the Anonymous "hacktivist" group who had been imprisoned after making attacks on several government websites, because they had agreed to now "help police work in combating information technology crimes." Tech skills are hard to come by in both Cambodia and Myanmar, where internet penetration remains very low.

Regardless of where Myanmar’s hackings come from, it seems clear that as the fraught elections draw closer and the rhetoric escalates, this won’t be the last attack in the name of Buddhist nationalism, online or off.

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. @jkdrennan

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