Facebook vigilantes are poisoning dogs in Myanmar

One morning in June, I woke up to a text I had been dreading for months.

“Hi Jake,” my landlord said. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news so early in the morning, but just at the break of dawn, YCDC euthanized all the stray dogs in the neighborhood. It was very, very unexpected and unannounced. I believe only two of the females survived.”

I ran outside and saw that most of my favorite dogs were gone. I searched for Robert, a yellow-eyed male with a brindled coat and floppy ears who always protected his sisters. My wife and I used to joke that Robert was “such a good person.” He was gone.

Like the rest of Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital, our street teemed with a sort of free-ranging, breedless mutt common around Southeast Asia, and we did our best to ease their lives on the street. We fed them every day and plucked ticks from their skin. A few months before the cull, we took Robert’s two sisters to get spayed to keep them safe from desperate males, and to spare ourselves the eventual sight of puppies being crushed by cars. Even after spending a traumatizing week recovering from their surgeries on our seventh-story balcony with cones around their heads, our “two girls” still ran up to us every time we walked by and gave us their bellies to rub.

Ours was a neighborhood of dog lovers. Every day at dawn, a procession of crimson-clad monks would promenade down our street to collect their daily rice from local Buddhists, and afterward, one of our neighbors would open up her vat of rice to a huddle of hungry, tail-wagging hounds.

The sudden cull, therefore, raised questions. Throughout the five years I worked in Myanmar as a journalist, I had heard rumors that the Yangon City Development Committee, the municipal government, would line public streets with strychnine-laced meat to attract unsuspecting dogs in an effort to thin their ever-growing population and curb the spread of rabies. Myanmar has one of Asia’s highest rates of human rabies infection, with around 1,000 cases every year and 71 deaths in 2018. But in 2015, in response to petitions from animal lovers who were horrified by the drawn-out deaths — convulsions and respiratory paralysis — these poisonings would inflict on the dogs, YCDC vowed to stop the poisonings. Instead, they adopted a strategy of “CNVR” — catch, neuter, vaccinate, release — a method for controlling stray cat and dog populations that epidemiologists consider more humane and more effective than culling.

So, four years after CNVR was introduced, why were dogs still being poisoned?

I got my answer a few nights later, just after 2 a.m., when a friend who lived a few blocks away called me and said her street was littered with dog corpses. I got on my electric scooter and drove over, hoping to confront the killers.

When I pulled into the street, I saw a group of local women trawling the pavement for bits of strychnine-laced meat to keep them out of the mouths of the few surviving dogs. As they searched, the beams of their flashlights glinted off the toothy snarls of the dead dogs, who had vomited up their last meals in the throes of death. A woman named Seint Thu Aung told me “the men who came were wearing all dark blue,” referring to the jumpsuits worn by YCDC staff. They had just left.

“We are animal lovers. These are our dogs,” Seint Thu Aung said. When I asked her why YCDC would target a neighborhood of animal lovers, she held up her phone to show me a Facebook group called the “Stray Dog Clearance Group.” I would soon learn that its purpose is to manufacture consent for the eradication of dogs.

“They hate dogs,” Seint Thu Aung said. “They want to kill all the dogs in Yangon.”

According to Myanmar historian Thant Myint-U, Yangon’s street dogs are a colonial relic, “descended from the pets left at Rangoon train station by British fleeing the Japanese” during the Second World War. Unlike stray pets that have been abandoned in adulthood, generations of life on the street have socialized Yangon’s street dogs into the rules of canine society. They live in family groups and avoid conflict by not straying outside their territory. Their daily routines are predictable. They spend their days snoozing in the shade of tall buildings and parked cars, and at night, they scurry out to socialize and rummage through piles of garbage for food.
Most Yangon residents live in harmony with their 200,000 canine neighbors, rewarding the dogs’ shameless begging with greasy scraps and plastic bags of white rice. The city’s fondness for street dogs and their antics has been memorialized in poetry, a hip-hop anthem, and other works of art.
May Phoo, a Yangon resident who released a line of T-shirts to commemorate the death of Wa Doke, a famously rotund street dog, told me she hoped her product would be a testament to “how stray dogs in Yangon are very friendly and not aggressive.”

Robert’s two sisters, who are still alive and well. All photos and screenshots by Jacob Goldberg.

T-shirts made to memorialize the famous street dog Wa Doke.

T-shirts made to memorialize the famous street dog Wa Doke.

But the 6,400 members of the Stray Dog Clearance Group are undermining this coexistence between dogs and humans. While not officially connected to the government, two of its most active posters are a city official and a senior member of the ruling political party. And by funneling a constant stream of anti-dog rhetoric directly to city officials and senior politicians, these dog-hating Facebook activists have created the illusion of widespread demand for dog eradication, to which YCDC has responded by secretly abandoning their commitment to CNVR and carrying out mass poisonings in the dead of night. The group’s success in shaping public policy offers yet another example of how Facebook can be used to bend reality around conspiracy theories and calls for violence.

Over the last few years, online misinformation campaigns in Myanmar have exposed Facebook as an easily exploitable tool for hate movements, prompting one UN rights investigator to say the platform had “turned into a beast.”

“Stray dogs, more bites, more profits. That’s CNVR campaign in Yangon,” reads one meme posted in November. “You can only sell rabies vaccines if people get bitten,” reads another, posted the following month. These statements echo the group’s belief that Myanmar’s national rabies policy, which says that “vaccinating dogs is the most cost-effective strategy for preventing rabies in people,” is the result of a conspiracy by the World Health Organization and the European Commission to encourage dog bites and sell more rabies vaccines in Myanmar. A cartoon shared on December 30 shows a politician offering a rabies vaccine to a citizen being mauled by a dog in exchange for his vote.

Suspicion of international organizations is a common theme among Facebook-borne misinformation campaigns in Myanmar. In the years leading up to its mass expulsion of Rohingya Muslims, Myanmar’s military promoted the false theory that aid agencies were supporting “Bengali terrorists” in order to undermine the country’s Buddhist heritage. The theory spread on Facebook, and when the army began torching villages in 2017, Myanmar netizens cheered on the violence and blamed the victims.

A meme posted to the Stray Dog Clearance Group on Facebook.

A meme posted to the Stray Dog Clearance Group on Facebook.

Members of the Stray Dog Clearance Group are similarly barefaced about their appetite for violence. In a December 23 post, one member wrote: “I have a hitman who can kill by beating. He killed two dogs already.” Six days later, another one wrote: “There is no need to ask whether CNVR is successful or not. Dog lovers do not take responsibility, so dogs will be killed.” On December 28, yet another member rejoiced over a series of photos showing a puppy that had been fed a piece of meat that was stuck full of nails.

These statements are sometimes passed off as jokes, but they exist alongside serious calls to action, sometimes from influential political figures. One such figure is Khin Maung Kyi, a longtime friend and political ally of Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who frequently shares photos of street dogs, along with their exact coordinates. His posts elicit responses such as: “Someone should report them.”

Maw Htun, a group administrator, told me that helping members report street dogs to the authorities is one of the main reasons the group exists. “The dog bite and psychological trauma of a feral stray attack will not subside,” he said. “We help citizens in distress who are facing imminent danger of stray dogs so that they can make complaints to YCDC in accordance with the law.”

Win Bo, another member of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party who serves as the chairman of Bahan township, Yangon’s most affluent neighborhood, also posts regularly in the Stray Dog Clearance Group. His main contribution is endorsing a policy known as “CNVA,” which suggests that instead of releasing dogs back to the street after they are neutered and vaccinated, authorities should confine them to shelters in the hope that they will be adopted. Proponents of CNVA claim to be dog lovers; Win Bo frequently touts the two strays he took into his home.

In reality, however, CNVA has been dismissed by experts as ineffective. According to Alley Cat Allies, a Maryland-based organization that advocates for humane programs to manage feral cat populations around the world (for whom CNVR is also considered the best policy approach), “managing populations through adoption is not possible…With the time and energy that goes into trying to socialize one adult feral cat, dozens of cats could be s-ayed or neutered.”

In fact, recent events suggest that CNVA’s proponents in Myanmar use the concept to distract from YCDC’s covert policy of mass dog-killing. Last summer, Win Bo supervised a well-publicized CNVA campaign in his township. Newspapers published photos of YCDC officials tranquilizing dogs and carting them off to animal shelters outside the city to be neutered, vaccinated, and ostensibly put up for adoption; “We don’t want Myanmar to be seen as a dog-killing country,” Win Bo told the Jakarta Post. A YCDC official said the program would soon be expanded to other Yangon townships, including Sanchaung, where I lived at the time. But no CNVA program ever came to my neighborhood. Instead, two weeks after Win Bo’s publicity stunt, YCDC massacred the dogs on my street.

The sad irony is that by promoting poisonings, members of the Stray Dog Clearance Group are actually guaranteeing the growth of the street dog population. Culls have been proven to have no effect on dog numbers: They make the streets appear empty for a few weeks, but they always miss the cleverest dogs, which can go on to reproduce as many as 21 puppies per female per year. Since YCDC has refused to invest into its waste collection system, poisonings only ensure that there is more food on the street for the survivors and their offspring.
A second irony is that after YCDC pledged to stop the poisonings, two international organizations pledged to fund CNVR programs in the city. However, these programs never got off the ground because YCDC failed to guarantee that newly neutered and vaccinated dogs would not be poisoned. By promoting poisonings, the Stray Dog Clearance Group’s only success has been to impede the one scientifically viable method of controlling the street dog population.

Strychnine-laced meat is used to poison dogs.

Strychnine-laced meat is used to poison dogs.

“We need to educate people on why CNVR is effective and successful,” Zin Mar, a dog lover and founder of the Yangon Canine Foundation, told me. In 2019, she started partnering with local veterinarians and celebrities to promote CNVR on Facebook, prompting Stray Dog Clearance Group members to accuse her of encouraging dog bites in order to enrich herself with foreign donor funds. Nonetheless, in the process of countering their claims, she has managed to crowdfund enough cash to carry out more than 200 CNVR procedures to date.

Since dogs on public streets remain at risk of poisoning, she has focused on sterilizing and vaccinating dogs that live on school campuses and in monasteries, as they are less likely to be killed after being caught, treated, and released.

“The most important part of CNVR is the ‘release’ because neutered and vaccinated dogs protect their own territory from other unneutered dogs,” she said. In other words, since street dogs are highly territorial, people living on a street where dogs have undergone CNVR are much safer than those living on streets where the familiar dogs have been poisoned and unfamiliar dogs can now move in.

“Rabies is a 100 percent preventable disease,” Zin Mar said. “We just need to stop the killing.”

In the weeks after the poisoning on my street, new dogs moved in. I resisted making friends with them, partly because I wanted to avoid the grief of a possible future cull, and partly because I was already scheduled to leave Myanmar for good a couple months later. I also resisted the urge to try to find homes for the “two girls,” knowing there was little chance anyone would want to adopt a pair of untrained street dogs in a city crawling with them, no matter how sweet they are. All I could do in those last few weeks was spend as much time as I could with the dogs I had come to love before saying goodbye forever. I took them to the vet, fed them every day, and let them chase me up and down the street.

My wife and I stashed some kibble with our landlord, who agreed to feed the girls in our absence, and we asked another friend who still lives in the neighborhood to say hi to them for us whenever she sees them. We recently received a video of one of the girls playing in the street, and our friend can be heard saying: “Guys, look how happy she is.”

To me, she looks like she’s exactly where she’s meant to be.

Jacob Goldberg is a writer and photographer based in Stockholm and Phnom Penh. His reporting has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, and Columbia Journalism Review.

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