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.
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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 per cent 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 fuelling 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.
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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 recognised 135 minority groups on the fringes.
Extremist clergy members are at the vanguard of moves to marginalise these minorities, especially Muslims.
Well-organised Buddhist nationalist movements such as Ma Ba Tha -- which is closely allied to Wirathu's 969 movement -- prints regular journals that reach tens of thousands of readers.
Such groups say they are fighting to protect the interests of the country's Bamar majority.
They tend to portray Islam as external invasion that will wipe out Myanmar's Buddhist heritage despite the fact that Muslims have existed in the country for centuries.
Pamaukha, a monk and spokesman for Ma Ba Tha, denied the group caused anti-Muslim violence, saying it was only "working hard" to ensure Myanmar "does not become an Islamic country".
Few mainstream politicians -- including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi -- dare speak out in defence of Muslims for fear of alienating Buddhist voters ahead of crucial elections.
Her reticence, especially on the Rohingya issue, has earned her international opprobrium.
But Buddhist nationalists are actively campaigning against Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party because it has spoken out against the Buddhist "protection laws" put forward to parliament by Ma Ba Tha.
"We will campaign not to vote (for the NLD or others opposing the laws) through speeches and pamphlets," said Pamaukha.
The smiling subjects of the "My Friend" campaign on Facebook know they have a long way to go. Their campaign has garnered only around 1,700 likes on Facebook, a figure dwarfed by the more than 74,000 subscribers on Wirathu's page.
But they still hope their message of friendship gains traction as the country prepares to head to the polls.
As Han Seth Lu, a recent contributor to the campaign's Facebook page, put it in a post showing him standing 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".
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