Youth activists joined water festivities in Yangon on Monday, distributing flowers and urging fellow citizens to restrain from using hate speech.
The Panzagar activists, also known as the Flower Speech Movement, hope to stop the use of abusive and insulting language recently spreading in online forums and public discussions.
Blogger and development worker Nay Phone Latt, who spent nearly four years in jail for writing about the 2007 protests that sparked a bloody crackdown, started the Flower Speech Movement. He said he fears that hate speech is dangerous for society.
Myanmar has been grappling with hate speech since religious tensions erupted in June 2012, killing at least 240 people and displacing more than 140,000, mostly Muslims. Vitriolic and inflammatory comments about Muslims, who make up a small fraction of the population, have become common on blogs, web forums and Facebook pages, the Thomson Reuters Foundation reported.
Buddhist nationalists and some monks, driven by fear that Muslims will take over Myanmar, have urged people to boycott Muslim-owned businesses and successfully lobbied the government to draft controversial laws, including one that would force Buddhist women wanting to marry non-Buddhist men to get permission from their parents and local government officials. No such restrictions are planned for Buddhist men, the report said.
Nay Phone Latt told local media that a Buddhist monk, U Wirathu, has been giving speeches inciting hatred against Rohingyas, Muslims who live in western Rakhine state and not recognised as one of Myanmar's official ethnic groups. They have been described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Such hatred, he says, has led to violent attacks against Rohingyas, the latest being in Hlegu township outside Yangon earlier this month, when a mob threw stones at Muslim residents and destroyed their property.
"I think there's a relation between violence and hate speeches which are spreading in our community and on the internet. If we can reduce this hatred, I believe that we can expect love in our society, and not hate among each other," Nay Phone Latt said.
Despite limited internet access in Myanmar, young people and the Burmese diaspora worldwide are using social media to share information and opinion on the country's issues.
The campaign is trying to reach all extremist groups using hate speech that touch on race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
"I hope people will adopt the attitude when they see flower speech, which means they will talk by not using insulting words to others, or talk without using hate speech," Latt said.
The Panzagar movement launched on April 4, handing out banners and pamphlets. Their signature banner shows a cartoon of a man and a woman holding a bullhorn that spews out flowers.
The anti-hate speech campaigners took the opportunity to reach as many people during the Thingyan Water Festival, celebrating the Buddhist New Year, when streets are crowded with revelers. They plan on visiting other towns in the future.