RANGOON — It was an unusual sight on a Sunday afternoon: a group of young people holding a vinyl sign and singing to passersby at Bogyoke market in downtown Rangoon, a place that is usually bustling with foreign tourists looking for deals on jewelry and souvenirs.
“Let’s Help the Arakan Fire Victims,” read the sign. Nearby, some members of the group, which called itself the Yangon Social Youths, held bags to collect donations from market-goers and well-wishers.
For those confused by the reference to “fire victims,” Thant Zin, 25, one of the organizers of this fund-raising event, offered a few words of explanation.
“Everybody knows what happened and what is happening now in Arakan State. People are taking refuge at relief camps because their houses were burned down in the recent violence. So we thought it would be better to use a neutral term like ‘fire victims’ to avoid evoking any connotation of the violence,” he said.
On Saturday, state media reported that communal riots between Buddhists and Muslims earlier this month in the northwestern part of Burma resulted in at least 50 deaths and the torching of more than 2,230 houses torched. As of last Wednesday, 31,884 people had taken shelter in 37 relief camps.
Sunday’s fund-raising drive brought together a group of young people, mostly working professionals in their 20s, who are part of a veritable boom in social activism in Burma today. It was their second day of collecting relief funds, after a day spent visiting businesses ranging from car dealerships and shopping malls to BBQ restaurants and beer pubs.
“We wanted to help people in Arakan State, but we couldn’t do it on our own because the damage is so huge. So we just said, ‘Guys, come and join us if you wish.’ And they did,” said Khaing Soe Linn, 25, one of the members of the Yangon Social Youths who said he would personally travel to the state to deliver the collected cash to a social foundation doing rescue work there.
But the fund-raisers didn’t just raise money for a good cause: They also set an example of peaceful coexistence. While Arakanese, Mon and Burmese volunteers were collecting cash donations from the market goers, their Muslim friends were ready with their car keys to transport them to next stop and Buddhists and Christians were singing peace-themed songs to the accompaniment of guitars.
“My participation here is not based on race,” said Tha Nge, 27, an ethnic Arakanese. “When Pakkoku was hit by flooding, I was there with my other friends to help the victims. In this case, I feel even more proud to be involved in relief efforts for my people.”
Meanwhile, the government and other groups are also turning their attention to the aftermath of the clashes in Arakan. On Saturday, state media announced that “authorities concerned are providing assistance to refugees” and ran headlines like “Union Minister on inspection tour of villages” and “Cash, foodstuff, clothes donated to refugees.”
“We need everything there—food, shelters, medicine and so on,” said Myo Kyaw, a central executive committee member of the Arakan National League for Democracy, which is organizing some relief efforts in the affected areas.
“We have reports of an outbreak of cholera because there are not enough latrines at the rescue camps. Our men on the ground even asked us to send some doctors there,” Saw Khin Tint, the chairman of the Arakan Literature and Culture Association in Rangoon, explained to a group of donors on Saturday at the office of the Arakan State Relief Committee, located in a leafy monastery under the shadow of Shwedagon Pagoda.
On Sunday, the Yangon Social Youths got a warm reception from market-goers, shopkeepers and the market administrators, who helped them by going around from shop to shop asking for donations.
“Yeah, we did it!” shouted a member jubilantly after learning that they had collected 2,000,000 kyat (US $2,500) at the market.
“I’m overjoyed! To tell you the truth, I didn’t expect to receive that much,” said Tin Aye Nyein, 29, who wandered throughout the market asking for donations.
The bespectacled web administrator added that when the shop owners learned why they were asking for donations, they didn’t hesitate to contribute. “They don’t bother themselves to ask who we were or where we’re from.”
“I’ve never asked a stranger for a donation before. Today is the first time in my life,” said another IT professional named Khaing Wuth Yee, 26. “I’m surprised that I didn’t feel any shame while doing it. Maybe it’s because we are doing it for something good,” she said.
Tin Maung Myint, 23, one of the Muslims in the group, said it felt great to give a helping hand to those affected by the violence.
“In my opinion, the violence was sparked by people who were unable to distinguish right from wrong. If they made a correct judgment before doing what they did, the riots might never have happened,” he said before driving his friends to another stop for fund-raising.
As evening approached, the Rangoon Social Youths braved the falling rain to give their last performance of the day at a crowded teashop near Rangoon University.
“We can’t solve the root cause of the problem, but if our country faces something bad, we have to unite. We are obliged to help those in distress, putting religion, language and complexion aside,” said a member of the group before vanishing into the evening rain.