Selfies combating ethnic, religious tensions in Burma

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At first glance, the photographs look incredibly banal: young people smiling broadly and taking selfies. But these Burmese friends, who are from very different backgrounds, are making a statement by posing together. Some are Buddhist; others are Muslim or Christian. Some are from the majority Bamar ethnicity; others are from ethnic minorities like the Rohingya. They’re taking these photos to fight back against prejudice in a country where hate speech runs rampant.

In the past few years, Burma has started down the path towards democracy, and its citizens have gained many freedoms. But it has also seen the spread of hate speech, notably towards Muslims, who make up an estimated 4 percent of the population.

Certain ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks – chief among them Wirathu, a virulent cleric based in Mandalay – have led anti-Muslim propaganda campaigns that inspired deadly riots in the country’s western Rakhine state in 2012. That’s where the majority of the country’s Rohingyas – a Muslim ethnic minority considered by some to be the world’s most persecuted people – are concentrated, though many have fled Burma or are holed up in camps. Today, just months before the next elections, these anti-Muslim movements are still going strong.

It is in this tense context that the “My Friend” campaign was born.

“Due to all the hate speech floating around, many people’s friendships have suffered”

Wai Wai Nu

Wai Wai Nu is a human rights activist and a “My Friend” campaign organiser. She lives in Yangon.
Facebook is incredibly popular in Burma. Unfortunately it’s not always used for good. Hate speech about minorities is spread through social networks, at a very rapid pace. So we wanted to fight this on the same terrain, and target young people, since they can effect societal change. Selfies are popular among the young Burmese, and they’re an easy way to show that people who are different from the majority – for example Muslims, Christians – are not the enemy.
Despite current tensions in our country, many of us, of course, do have friends from different backgrounds. So we asked people to send in their selfies with their diverse friends, or come out to specific spots in Yangon to take selfies together. All sorts of people came, from all ethnicities and religions.
”I am a Rohingya Muslim; some of my best friends are Bamar Buddhist. We have always gotten along just fine. They are tolerant people, who see past labels. But I know that due to all the hate speech floating around, many people’s friendships have indeed suffered, and probably even more so for people who live outside Yangon. [Editor’s Note: In an article published by FRANCE 24’s Observers in 2012, a Muslim Observer in Mandalay described how her friends had started to pretend they didn’t know who she was following an anti-Muslim propaganda campaign. We have to show people that friendship is stronger than hate, that diversity is not a bad word.

So far, we’ve received almost only positive reactions, with very few negative comments on our page.   Right now, it’s a small campaign; we’ll see how it goes for our big launch on July 31, after which we’ll do much more events and publicity. We’ll also ask people from around the world to support us by sending in selfies of themselves with their diverse friends, too I do worry that the situation in Burma is deteriorating, and that tensions might flare up again during election time. And we can’t blame only the extremists – the government needs to abolish all sorts of discriminatory practices against the Rohingya, which they don’t consider to be Burmese at all. [Editors’ Note: Though the Rohingya have been in Burma for generations, the authorities – and much of the population – do not consider them Burmese, but rather Bangladeshi. The Rohingya were stripped of Burmese citizenship in 1982]. Labeling them as illegal immigrants confuses the public opinion, and creates rumours and fears that lead to violence.”

The campaign also aims to highlight friendships between people from Burma’s numerous ethnic groups. Today, fighting continues on as it has for decades between the army and insurgents from different ethnic minorities, notably the Karen and the Kokang, in Burma’s mountainous border regions.



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