Some cheesy grins, a camera phone, in the backdrop a glistening pagoda and –- click! –- you’ve got a great picture.But these aren’t ordinary students, and these aren’t ordinary selfies.
They are part of Myanmar’s My Friend campaign, started by human rights activists this summer. The organizers want people to post selfies of themselves with friends from different religious or ethnic backgrounds, using the hashtag #myfriend of #friendshiphasnoboundaries.
So what, right? But this is Myanmar. Five years ago, Facebook was blocked by the military junta. Censorship was rife. Mobile phones were unavailable, or cost up to $5,000 for a SIM card, so no smartphone selfies.
But while the technology (and the government -– it’s now nominally civilian) has changed since then, some of the wider problems in Myanmar society have not. An incredibly diverse place, it is also a place loaded with ethnic tension. A number of regions still face conflict and attempts to sign a national ceasefire have struggled.
The Rohingya people, a Muslim minority almost entirely based in Arakan (Rakhine) State, are among the worst affected. Not recognized as an ethnic group by the government or much of the majority Buddhist nation, they are effectively stateless and denied access to basic rights, from food to healthcare.
Many now live in camps for internally displaced people after violence in 2012 forced them from their homes. Tens of thousands attempt to flee by boat. Sadly, some do not make it, and drown in the Bay of Bengal.
Moreover, wider anti-Muslim rhetoric has gone mainstream in Myanmar. A series of laws known as the “race and religion” laws, widely considered to be discriminatory, were passed earlier this year. Just last month, tens of thousands of people attended a rally led by a group of ultranationalist Buddhist monks known as Ma Ba Tha to celebrate the new rules.
It was against this backdrop that activist Wai Wai Nu, who is Rohingya, decided to launch her campaign earlier this year to show that not all of Myanmar feels this way.
“We want to promote tolerance and peace among our diverse ethnic and religious society,” she says, pointing out that the rise of nationalism in Myanmar is a threat to the country’s fledgling democracy. Elections take place on Nov. 8.
Similar campaigns, such as the #NotInMyName which was launched by Muslims against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, have been effective in raising awareness and promoting tolerance.
And the My Friend campaign in Myanmar is already making an impact. It has nearly 3,000 likes on Facebook and hundreds have posted heartfelt messages like this one: “Our religion is different, our ethnicity is different, but we are friends and we love each other.”
Wai Wai Nu says without the rise of social media use in Myanmar, campaigns like this could not exist. However, she says that there are many people using Facebook and other platforms for darker purposes, which she hopes the campaign can counteract.
She is not wrong: for example, Wirathu, a monk once called the “Buddhist Bin Laden” who is the figurehead of Ma Ba Tha, rose to prominence via his sermons posted on Facebook and YouTube.
Wai Wai Nu adds: “Social media is very important now because Myanmar is [a country with] one of the highest rate of Facebook users, and many racist groups are using social media to spread hate speech. So we have to make sure…young people are not engaging with this. We want young people to [use] social media in an effective way for society.”
At the same time, the authorities are cracking down on social media posts, recently arresting two people for jokey anti-military updates. In the face of this, Wai Wai Nu’s campaign looks all the braver.
She hopes showing the world that friendships can cross boundaries could help prevent further violence, if people recognize the humanity in others. The selfies are just the first step in the group’s wider plan to promote acceptance in Myanmar, with events and TV promotion also on the agenda; and Wai Wai says the campaign does not have to end at Myanmar’s borders.
“Our message is Lets Build Beautiful Future Together. Anyone around the world can participate in [the] campaign by having #myfriendcampaign and #friendshiphasnoboundaries,” she says.
Note: Changes have been made, MThai is not responsible for these.