Jack Dorsey, CEO of social media platform Twitter—the company now emblazoned in the public eye as one of the primary mouthpieces of our very loud and angry president—wants you to know how about his powerful experiences with Vipassana meditation techniques. Specifically, his recent experience at a 10-day retreat in Myanmar, a country whose military is currently terrorizing hundreds of thousands of Muslims in a genocidal campaign enabled in part by social media platforms.
On Saturday, Dorsey tweeted about his recent birthday trip to the Dhamma Mahimã Vipassana Center in Pyin Oo Lwin, saying he obtained insights such as how Vipassana techniques allow one to “hack the deepest layer of the mind and reprogram it” and have an effect that is measurable via Apple Watch. But he failed to mention the atrocities that the country’s military has been committing against the long-persecuted majority-Muslim Rohingya minority group, which reached a fever pitch starting in late 2016 with the complicity of its civilian government. Instead, he encouraged his millions of Twitter followers “if you’re willing to travel a bit, go to Myanmar”:
Whatever one thinks of Dorsey’s Silicon Valley-infused practice of Vipassana meditation—and there are plenty of people on Dorsey’s own site with strong opinions of wildly varying caliber on that—human rights groups are more concerned that the CEO touted Myanmar as a lovely tourist destination without mentioning the reign of terror in large parts of the country, such as Rakhine State.
Violence in Myanmar is very specifically tied to a military regime that uses a militant strain of Theravada Buddhism as a pretext to scapegoat the Rohingya as the root of the country’s problems. United Nations investigators determined this year that the genocide, which has driven at least 700,000 Rohingya out of the country, is continuing against the 250,000-400,000 estimated to remain. The UN wrote in a statement that the military’s actions “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.”
The UN (as well as independent reporting) found that Myanmar military officials coordinated the genocide in large part on one of Twitter’s fellow social media companies, Facebook. As noted by the New York Times, one of the tactics the military used on Facebook was spreading propaganda on its Messenger platform warning that “jihad attacks” committed by Muslims were imminent. At the same time, it flooded Muslim groups with messages warning nationalist Buddhist monks were about to launch violent protests.
“The purpose of the campaign, which set the country on edge, was to generate widespread feelings of vulnerability and fear that could be salved only by the military’s protection, said researchers who followed the tactics,” the Times wrote.
“The government is increasingly demonstrating that it has no interest and capacity in establishing a fully functioning democracy where all its people equally enjoy all their rights and freedoms,” UN special investigator on human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee told reporters in October 2018, per Reuters. “Repatriation is not possible now... Right now, it’s like an apartheid situation where Rohingyas still living in Myanmar … have no freedom of movement.”
“The camps, the shelters, the model villages that are being built, it’s more of a cementing of total segregation or separation from the Rakhine ethnic community,” Lee added.
While the U.S. State Department steered clear of using the term genocide in a report released in September 2018, stunning some human rights observers, Politico wrote that the assessment was still rife with accounts of atrocities:
The report, which was based on interviews with more than 1,000 Rohingya survivors, found that the recent violence was “extreme, large-scale, widespread, and seemingly geared toward both terrorizing the population and driving out the Rohingya residents.” Rohingya were often shot, hacked or burned to death, while many of the women were raped.
“Multiple witnesses report soldiers throwing infants and small children into open fires or burning huts,” the report states. “Witnesses also report seeing soldiers throw children into rivers and seeing children’s bodies that had been thrown into a village well. One refugee reported seeing a police officer throw an infant in a river, then shooting the mother when she ran into the water to save her child.”
For all these issues and more, Dorsey is taking a lot of heat. Per the Guardian:
Andrew Stroehlein, the European media director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted: “I’m no expert on meditation, but is it supposed to make you so self-obsessed that you forget to mention you’re in a country where the military has committed mass killings & mass rape, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee, in one of today’s biggest humanitarian disasters?”
... Mohammed Jamjoom, a correspondent for al-Jazeera who has interviewed Rohingya refugees, said Dorsey’s tweets had left him “utterly speechless”.
“Writing what is effectively a free tourism advert for [Myanmar] at this time is reprehensible,” one Twitter user wrote in response to Mr Dorsey’s tweets.
“The tone-deafness here is... wow,” another user said.
“This is an extremely irresponsible recommendation,” one response reads. “Does he pay no attention to the news and the outcry on his own platform?”
“I love that @jack did a 10-day Vipassana and also his product and company are literally the most antithetical experience in the entire world to everything that Vipassana retreats stand for,” one user wrote.
“The CEO of a major social-media platform went on a meditation retreat in a country where there’s an ongoing genocide notable being exacerbated by social media and did a whole big thread about it,” another user wrote.
Suffice it to say this was not one of his best PR moves. There’s plenty of dispute about whether it is ethical to travel to Myanmar at all, but most of that dispute is about the practical question of whether it hurts or helps the victims of persecution. Dorsey, on the other hand, seemed either determined to ignore the issue in pursuit of what he viewed as a more authentic experience—a “person who said they were familiar with Dorsey’s intentions” told the Washington Post he was seeking the most traditional form of Vipassana, practiced only in Myanmar—or like what is happening to hundreds of thousands of people elsewhere in the country never occurred to him at all.
As of late Sunday afternoon, Dorsey has not responded to the criticism, but per the BBC, “earlier said he would track the responses to his tweets.”