Commentary: Facebook’s Xi Jinping’s name gaffe is no laughing matter

NEW DELHI: A momentous two-day visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping this week had been a widely anticipated trip, with a string of anticipated infrastructural deals that would boost investments in Myanmar and enhance ties between both countries in the works for some time now.

Capping off his trip on Saturday (Jan 18), the exchange was a success on many fronts.



Mr Xi met with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw where he signed 33 multi-billion dollar agreements that heralded closer cooperation between China and Myanmar in a wide range of areas from energy to trade.

Among these include agreements regarding the development of a deep-sea port in Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, a critical asset in the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.

READ: Commentary: Chinese leaders must convince others of Chinas peaceful rise

President Xi Jinping is expected to sign a series of mammoth infrastructure deals as part of China's Belt and Road Initiative – a global trade plan that promises to change the face of Myanmar. (Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu)



Calling Myanmar a “trusted friend” of China, Mr Xi reaffirmed the good relations between both sides. He also met with the countrys top leaders, including President Win Myint and military chief General Min Aung Hlaing.

But the visit turned south quickly online after when an unintentional but a serious mistake from Facebooks automatic translation of Xi Jinpings name from Burmese into English as "Mr Shithole" surfaced on Aung San Suu Kyis official Facebook page.

READ: Commentary: China makes inroads into Europe. That's creating some discomfort


Facebook has since apologised for the error and released a statement. "We fixed a technical issue that caused incorrect translations from Burmese to English on Facebook. This should not have happened and we are taking steps to ensure it doesnt happen again.”

However, the error has gone viral on the Internet. While the translation was taken down from the State Counsellors Facebook page, it had already spread across Myanmar where the platform is the most popular site for news, entertainment, chat and other networking activities.

Even though it had been a technical glitch, such a mistake has serious consequences.

For one, it embarrasses the Chinese and Myanmar leaderships, and taints the atmospherics of what was supposed to be an important milestone in diplomatic relations.

This is significant for the fact that China has, in recent months, come under severe criticism regarding a wide spectrum of issues including developments in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

READ: Commentary: Lecturing Aung San Suu Kyi on press freedom wasnt Pences best moment

While Chinese investments and infrastructural projects are largely welcome inside Myanmar, many Myanmarese remain sceptical. Some are concerned Beijings projects will become a debt-trap, which Myanmar would have to pay the price for many decades to come.

Rohingya fleeing the violence in Myanmar head into Bangladesh in this picture from Oct 17, 2017. Gambia has brought genocide charges at the ICJ over the military crackdown. (Photo: AFP/MUNIR UZ ZAMAN)

Bilateral relations could be affected if a misunderstanding about the incident provokes a counter-reaction by Chinese citizens. This would have impact on not only state-sponsored projects but also private businesses and the flow of Chinese tourists into Myanmar.

Myanmar cannot risk further isolation. There are few other governments in the world that have been as reliable and staunch a supporter like China in recent years.

Beijing has consistently defended Myanmar at the United Nations, including last Decembers hearing of genocidal charges at the International Court of Justice.

There is also much at stake given the mutual desire from both countries to deepen diplomatic ties. For China, Myanmar is not only a destination for its economic activities under the Belt and Road Initiative but also a strategic point and partner to gain access to the Indian Ocean.


More seriously, it brings to mind painful memories of Facebooks problematic track record in Myanmar surrounding the Rohingya crisis.

An independent assessment by non-profit Business for Social Responsibility in November 2018 highlighted that the Big Tech giant wasnt doing enough to prevent its social media platform from being used to foment division and incite hate.

READ: Commentary: The world's most powerful teenager? Facebook

Facebook is the main means of communication in Myanmar. (File photo: AFP/Sai Aung Main)

Some experts have also pointed out how a post about the fabricated rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by two Muslim men was widely shared in 2014, and is considered to have contributed to the communal tensions in Myanmar.

Even after the Rohingya crisis erupted in 2017, there were signs suggesting the Facebook platform continued to play a role in stirring up violence.

In April 2018, US Senator Patrick Leahy pointed out to founder Mark Zuckerberg during a senate hearing on Facebooks ties to Cambridge Analytica how a specific threat calling for the death of Muslim journalists in Myanmar passed Facebooks detection systems and took numerous calls by civil society groups for it to be taken down.

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