My Friend campaigners representing different ethnic groups and religions pose for a selfie. Source: My Friend campaign page on Facebook
In a nation where religion and ethnicity can be sensitive issues, a selfie campaign by Myanmar students promoting cross-cultural friendship has emerged as a counterpoint to growth in anti-Muslim rhetoric from some segments of society.
At first glance there is nothing unusual about the group of grinning teenagers jostling for position in front of a mobile phone camera lens. But their selfie—taken with Yangon’s gleaming Shwedagon Pagoda in the background—is an act of unity in a nation plagued by outbreaks of communal violence and increasingly inflammatory hate speech during 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. They are 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?” campaign co-founder Wai Wai Nu, who hails from Myanmar’s heavily persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority, told Agence France-Presse. She was spurred into action by a rising tide of hate speech, often targeting the country’s various Muslim communities, who make up an estimated 4 per cent of the population.
“We’re Buddhist, we’re Muslim, we’re Christian, we’re Hindu, we’re Baha'i! We’re Human beings!” said contributor May Aye Thandar Kywe on the campaign’s Facebook page.
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.
Access to 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.
The My Friend selfie group, which operates on Facebook and Twitter, decided to use the same technology to reduce societal divisions. They were determined to launch the campaign before polls expected in November this year, fearful that campaigning could 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.
The smiling subjects of the My Friend campaign know they have a long way to go. Their efforts have garnered a little more than 1,800 likes on Facebook, but they still hope their message of friendship will gain traction as the country prepares to head to the polls.
Han Seth Lu, a recent contributor to the campaign’s Facebook page, posted a selfie alongside a woman in hijab: “I’m Buddhist and my friend is a Muslim.”
“We are different but we accept each other,” he added. “Because friendship has no boundaries.”