Myanmar activists launch rare anti-hate speech drive

YANGON - Dozens of activists took to the streets of Myanmar's main city Yangon Friday for a rare campaign against anti-hate speech in a country wracked by sectarian violence and rising Buddhist nationalism.

Volunteers urged passers-by to focus on promoting social harmony in the former junta-ruled nation, where scores have been killed and tens of thousands left homeless in anti-Muslim unrest since 2012.

Campaign stickers appealed to people to "watch what we say so that hate between mankind does not proliferate".

Surging sectarian vitriol on social media has accompanied the bloodshed, while extremist monks have been accused of fanning the flames of hatred by campaigning for boycotts of Muslim businesses and restrictions on inter-faith marriages.

"There is so much hate-speech in our country. We don't want that. We want to dispel it," 28-year-old Thant Zin Htwe told AFP, after posting stickers on taxis and buses in the commercial hub Yangon.

Myanmar emerged from outright military rule in 2011, but the relaxation of suffocating authoritarian control under a new quasi-civilian government has also opened the way for communal unrest.

Last week seething tensions in western Rakhine State erupted into unrest when Buddhist mobs attacked international aid groups, which they accuse of being biased towards Muslims.

"I found some people writing things like 'foreigners are so arrogant, they should be beaten and killed'," said blogger and former political prisoner Nay Phone Latt, who is helping to organise the campaign.

"People will slowly become rotten in their minds if they see that dangerous hate speech," he told AFP.

He said the movement is also urging people to identify hate speech on Facebook, which is hugely popular among the small percentage of the population with access to the Internet, so that it can be reported and removed.

Nay Phone Latt said it was "more dangerous" if monks or government ministers spread hate speech.

He has been a rare public voice against the violence and hate speech that has proliferated since two waves of religious bloodshed in Rakhine in 2012 that sparked anti-Muslim violence across the country.

Organisers, which include several grassroots activist groups, said some 200 people participated in the launch of the campaign, which has a Facebook page full of pictures of people holding flowers in their mouths.