A Muslim man holds a white rose after leaving a mosque after prayers in Myanmar's Bago township on June 2. (Photo courtesy of White Rose Campaign)
As the rain fell in Myanmar’s commercial hub of Yangon one recent evening, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Hindus gathered and prayed together at an iftar dinner, the meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during Ramadan.
Young people from various religions gave white roses to Muslims and other people to show love and solidarity with minorities in the country.
Interfaith activists launched the White Rose Campaign shortly after Muslims’ temporary prayer sites were forced to shut down by 100 nationalist Buddhist monks who led supporters into three Muslim areas of South Dagon township in Yangon on the nights of May 14-15.
Buddhist monk Ashin Seindita from the Asia Light Foundation and interfaith activists reached out to the Muslim community in Yangon’s outskirts to show love and compassion.
After the campaign started in Yangon on May 17, it quickly spread to Sagaing, Mawlamyine, Mandalay, Bago, Naypyitaw and Pyay.
Thet Swe Win, an interfaith activist who helped to launch the campaign in Yangon, said it aims to reject violence and to show solidarity with minorities and the oppressed.
“More people, especially Buddhists, need to participate in the campaign and give their voices for love and defy violence,” he told ucanews.com.
He said most Buddhists do not support the hard-line nationalists but remain silent. “Nationalists dare to speak up about nationalism, so we, the Buddhists, also need to show our voices against hatred and violence to minorities,” he added.
Thet Swe Win appealed to Muslims to have patience with anti-Muslim acts by nationalists and to respond smartly. “If one side responds too violently, it may easily fall into a trap made by political opportunists,” he added.
Buddhist monk Ashin Seindita hands white roses to the Muslim community in South Dagon township on May 16. (Photo courtesy of White Rose Campaign)
Myanmar has seen several bouts of religious violence in recent years, much of it targeting Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.
Hard-line Buddhist monks from what was formerly called the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, or Ma Ba Tha, encouraged anti-Muslim violence in 2012 that left more than 200 people dead and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes in Rakhine.
Known for its anti-Islamic rhetoric, the nationalist monks' organization has renamed itself the Buddha Dhamma Philanthropy Foundation.
Muslims have been targeted and used as a political tool under various military regimes that have ruled Myanmar for five decades.
Muslims account for 4.3 percent of the population in the Buddhist-majority country, according to the 2014 census. They arrived in the ninth century and most are of Indian, Chinese or Pathi descent.
Al Haj Aye Lwin, a Muslim and co-founder of Religions for Peace Myanmar, said he appreciates the White Rose Campaign and active participation of young people from various religions as it shows unity in diversity.
He said interfaith activists launched campaigns some years ago to counter rising nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment fueled by nationalist monks.
“We need to manage the difference as they have a right to be different. And we need to be aware of diversity,” Aye Lwin told ucanews.com.
Ashin Seindita, founder of the Pyin-Oo-Lwin based Asia Light Foundation, said he is pleased with the involvement of youths in interfaith activities. “The new generation see people as humans regardless of race, religion and ethnicity,” he said.