‘Religious Roots of Social Harmony’ Discussed in Rangoon

A man protesting violence against his fellow Muslim is seen during a demonstration near Sule Pagoda in Rangoon on June 5, 2012. (Photo: Reuters / Soe Zeya Tun)

A man protesting violence against his fellow Muslim is seen during a demonstration near Sule Pagoda in Rangoon on June 5, 2012. (Photo: Reuters / Soe Zeya Tun)

RANGOON — Leaders from a handful of faiths in Burma came together in Rangoon to discuss “the religious roots of social harmony” on Sunday, less than a week after violence between Buddhists and Muslims reportedly once again wracked western Arakan State.

About 100 people, including Buddhist monks, and Muslim and Christian leaders, were present for the interfaith dialogue over the weekend, an event that also saw attendance by U Wirathu, leader of the controversial “969 movement” that critics say has been responsible for disseminating hate speech against Burma’s Muslim minority.

At a time of rising tensions between majority Buddhists and Muslims in the country, most visibly—and recently—in Arakan State, event organizer Danielle Goldberg said the goal was to promote “mechanisms for preventing violence and helping people to understand each other.”

Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, at which Goldberg serves as program coordinator for peace-building and rights, co-organized the dialogue with the local civil society group Religions for Peace.

“We have been engaged with different religious leaders here since we started working last year,” Goldberg said, adding that the work included outreach to Burma’s religious leaders and community organizations.

The extent of anti-Muslim sentiment in the country was revealed in June 2012, when local Arakanese Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas attacked each other in Arakan State. The communal violence has since spread to several other states and divisions in Burma, where Muslims have made up the majority of victims in violent, sometimes deadly clashes.

Last week, reports emerged of what appeared to be the latest incident in troubled Arakan State. The Arakan Project, a Thailand-based Rohingya rights group, said initial reports from sources on the ground in the region said anywhere from 10 to 60 Rohingya Muslims were killed after a police officer went missing in Maungdaw Township, where access is heavily restricted.

The government confirmed the missing law enforcement official, but has denied any knowledge of violence against Rohingya in Maungdaw last week.

The dialogue also came less than a week after a conference of monks agreed on a proposal to statutorily restrict interfaith marriage between Buddhist women and men of other faiths. The proposal, first put forward in June 2013, is opposed by human rights defenders and the chairwoman of Burma’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

But the proposal may gain traction in Parliament, where it looks likely to be submitted as a bill for consideration. In July of last year, a petition in favor of the restrictions garnered more than 2.5 million signatures, according to its supporters, indicating a degree of popular support for the idea.

“I know this is very sensitive,” Goldberg said on Sunday. “Each day there are challenges for interreligious understanding and harmony.”

Wirathu, who attended Sunday’s dialogue at the invitation of organizers, has been accused of stoking anti-Muslim sentiment by propagating the ideology of his “969 movement,” an ultranationalist credo that calls on Burma’s Buddhists to boycott Muslim-owned business. In speeches since his rise to national prominence, Wirathu has referred to Muslims as “mad dogs” and blamed an attack at a monastery in Mandalay as the work of “Islamic terrorists.”

About 90 percent of Burma’s population of some 60 million people is Buddhist, and Muslims are estimated to comprise about 5 percent.

Ashin Nyanissara, one of Burma’s most respected monks who is better known as Sitagu Sayadaw, spoke out against violence at the dialogue.

“We should join each other to declare that we should abstain from conflict and violence. We strongly condemn any form of violence. All political leaders and religious leaders should join in this [condemnation].”

A Muslim leader, Al Haj Aye Lwin, tried to counter sentiment—espoused by 969 adherents—that Muslims pose a threat to Burma’s religious identity.

“Myanmar has managed to forge unity in multiplicity in this pluralistic society since the time of Myanmar kingdoms. Islam reached Myanmar more than 1,000 years ago. We are part of the society. We are proud to be dutiful citizens of this beloved land of ours, joining hands with others, brothers and sisters from different people.”

Speaking to reporters during a discussion break, Wirathu said religious tensions would not be eased by “high level” discussions like the one that took place on Sunday, and called for more dialogue “on the ground.” Wirathu added that he would help by educating Arakanese Buddhists on the rule of law in the hopes of avoiding future violent confrontation.

Several foreign embassies also sent representatives to participate in Sunday’s discussion. The US Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Virginia E. Murray, said solutions to the country’s religious divisions would ultimately need to come from within.

“It’s not for the international community, it’s not for outsiders to say what happens next, but what we can do is offer that support and help you ask the questions that you yourselves perhaps need to answer,” she said.

4 Responses to ‘Religious Roots of Social Harmony’ Discussed in Rangoon

  1. Burma ( Myanmar ) and its peoples have to think deeply and with sincerely that this world is not for alone but for every body. You alone cannot own all the land, may be you are the first comer to this land. So also others are the comers to this land. How can you alone own the land? If you claim such kind of thing it is your Karma, you are not a good Buddhist. Buddha never ever teach selfish. You have to share to other for the sake of humanity.

  2. Wirathu said “low level discussion is needed” especially in Rakhine state. This monk spreads the hatred against Muslims. I have listened some of his speeches. In one he asked Buddhist to keep Muslims at the mercy of Buddhists. Muslims should not look at the eyes of Buddhist but should bow down. This is just stage show for him. He will preach Rakhines to become more extremists.

  3. Women have rights.
    So do men of all faiths.
    Buddhists have rights.
    So do Muslims and people of every other religion.
    U Wirathu has no right to trespass on others’ rights.
    Marriage is no concern of monks to interfere with.
    Buddhist monks are not priests who dictate human life.
    The Buddha did not preach sectarianism.
    He taught harmony and peace for human race, and compassion for all living things.
    not just for Buddhists alone.
    All U Wirathu and his associates have to do is to train themselves well enough to convert all Muslims to Buddhism. but not to restrict interfaith marriages.
    If they are capable, there would be no issue as to interfaith marriage.
    Try that, U Wirathu!
    But glad to say, the Buddha had never compelled anybody to convert to his view. All came to him on their own free will.
    Can you see that, U Wirathu?
    Likewise, if a woman wants to marry a Muslim man and become a Muslim, the Buddha would just let her be.

  4. Burma HAS BEEN AND WILL BE home to all the people living in Burma for millenia together till the end of the world. But this Burma should not be a Burma where a handful of Islamist militants stir trouble, demand part of the coutnry as their own only, repeat, own only, by conducting suspicious campaigns of DE-HISTORIZATION AND IMPORTING ISLAMIC FANATICS TO stir trouble in the land. For centuries the Muslims have lived in Burma with no breach of peace. But now since the suspicious Islamists demanded with concocted write-ups that part of Burma was ruled by imaginary Muslim rulers, problems shot up. This horrible truth everyone should know. And last week three policemen went missing after they went to check a Muslim village in Maungdaw. Immediately a fake human rights NGO with the name of Arakan in Thailand started campaigning that the Buddhist mob with police came and attacked the village. This kind of campaign is totally against either restoration of peace or even continuation of Rakhine state under Burma. If such ‘racist’ elements are injected into such HR reports, what the indigenous people of Burma will feel? What sentiment will run through the law enforcers engaged in the area as well as those Rakhine who have nothing to do with the regular police checks? A few days ago three Islamic militants were arrested in Bangladesh who wer bound for Burma. Why Arakan Project is silent about this? In their insensible report has Arakan Project been part and parcel to inciting racist troubles inside Burma? It doesn’t need anyone to be university lecturer in political scinece to be able to know the results.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available. Comments with external links in the body text will be deleted by moderators.