YANGON: In a nation where religion and ethnicity are incendiary issues, a selfie campaign by Myanmar students promoting cross-cultural friendships has become a rare counterpoint to bilious anti-Muslim rhetoric from hardline Buddhist monks.
At first glance there is nothing unusual about the group of grinning teenagers jostling for space in front of a mobile phone camera.
But their selfie — taken with Yangon’s gleaming Shwedagon Pagoda in the background — is an act of unity in a nation hit by deadly recent outbreaks of communal violence and increasingly inflammatory hate speech in a crucial election year.
A bespectacled boy from the country’s Buddhist majority shares the screen with a group of fellow students who are Muslim, part of the ‘My Friend’ campaign which encourages people from different religions and ethnic groups to snap selfies together and post them online.
“Everyone loves to take selfies in their own way, so why don’t we use it in a proper way, for the betterment of society?” explains campaign co-founder Wai Wai Nu, who hails from Myanmar’s heavily persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority.
She was spurred into action by a rising tide of hate speech, which often targets the country’s various Muslim communities, who make up an estimated four percent of the population.
Hardline Buddhist monks have led the anti-Muslim rhetoric through public demonstrations and online, sentiments matched by policy proposals many say target the minority.
The most recent spate of protests in Yangon and western Rakhine state have railed against help being offered to desperate Rohingya Muslim migrants found adrift on boats in the Bay of Bengal.
Tens of thousands of the minority ethnic group have fled Rakhine in recent years to escape persecution after deadly communal unrest erupted there in 2012, leaving more than 200 dead and 140,000 displaced in sprawling camps — mostly Muslims.
On the Facebook page of the country’s most notorious hardline monk Wirathu, a recent post warns against lifting a constitutional clause that would allow those who have married foreigners to become president, with a sketch of a future leader next to his hijab-wearing wife.
“If the law is changed, the country will look like this,” it warns.
Web fueling hate
Cheap mobile technology has ignited an Internet revolution in the former junta-run nation as it emerges from decades of isolation since the end of outright military rule in 2011.
But the exponential growth in web access has also seen hate speech flourish on social media with many well-visited accounts operating anonymously.
Blogger Nay Phone Latt is behind the Panzagar — or “Flower Speech” — movement which monitors and reports hate speech on sites like Facebook.
He says the government is doing little to stop inflammatory content from spreading.
“There are some groups who are intentionally trying to spread hate speech, and trying to ignite violence,” he said, describing systematic online hate campaigns that are deeply intertwined with the country’s politics.
The “My Friend” selfie group, which operates on Facebook and Twitter, decided it would use the same technology to reduce those divisions.
They were determined to launch the campaign before polls expected in November fearful that campaigning will deepen communal divisions.
Myanmar is a collage of ethnicities. But decades of neglect under military rule and conflict still raging in parts of the country’s remote north and east have left many of its officially recognized 135 minority groups on the fringes.