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A group of youth activists began distributing t-shirts and stickers promoting religious harmony in Rangoon and Mandalay on Friday, as part of a grassroots campaign to counter the growing threat of Buddhist extremism in Burma.
Dozens of activists travelled through several townships in the former capital planting stickers on cars, shops and windows in response to the growing anti-Muslim “969” movement – led by the notorious Islamophobic monk Wirathu — which calls for Buddhists to shun the Muslim community.
Organisers say they distributed more than 20,000 stickers and 1,000 t-shirts across Rangoon, carrying the message “There shall be no racial, religious conflicts because of me” and “Burmese citizens don’t discriminate by race and religion”.
Volunteers from the multi-faith group – known as “Pray for Myanmar” – travelled to several townships in the commercial capital, including the Muslim-majority Mingalar Taungnyunt, where locals have lived in terror since rumours spread that the area would be attacked by Buddhist mobs.
It follows a wave of anti-Muslim riots that crippled central Burma late last month, leaving scores dead, thousands displaced and countless homes, mosques and shops razed to the ground.
A group of youths in Mandalay also distributed 1,000 stickers near Zegyo market, where Muslims were targeted in last month’s violence.
Activists say their campaign has been welcomed by the vast majority of residents, aside from a small group of people. “Ninety-five percent of the people happily took the items but there were some who threw them away or wouldn’t take them,” one of the organisers, Thet Swe Win, told DVB.
“We had a threat via phone as well,” he explained. “Someone pretending to be a journalist who got hold of my number called me up and said: ‘Aren’t you Burmese?’ ‘What are you doing siding with the Kalars?’ and cursed. Our movement is made up of multi-faith youths – we have Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.”
The recent outburst of violence has prompted widespread concern over the government’s failure to tackle hate-speech by prominent members of the monkhood, who have led vocal campaigns against the country’s Muslim minority.
Wirathu has made a number of inflammatory public speeches, warning against the growing threat of Islam in Burma, which have been distributed widely through DVDs and social media. Stickers carrying the “969” logo can be found plastered all over major cities, including Rangoon. However, he has denied that his “969” campaign played a role in the recent unrest.
But in a national address, President Thein Sein blamed the spread of the violence on “a small number of people” and warned “political opportunists and religious extremists” that they would be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.
Thet Swe Win added the movement will continue despite any local opposition and urged youths in other cities and townships across Burma to follow suit. Another campaign insider told DVB they also plan to produce a video featuring prominent public figures and celebrities to deliver messages of religious and racial tolerance.
The recent eruption of religious riots has been seen as a key test for President Thein Sein, who has implemented a number of democratic reforms since taking office in March 2011.