When Religious Diversity Was Embraced in Burma

Myanmar, Burma, The Irrawaddy, religion, Islam, Muslim, Buddhist, Hla Swe, harmony, discord

Smoke rises from the scene of communal violence in Meikhtila, Mandalay Division, in March 2013. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)

Many different issues related to religion are emerging in Burma, foremost among them being the discord between Buddhists and Muslims, which seems to deepen by the day. It should not be this way. Religion in Burma has become besmirched because of an opportunistic few who seek to exploit it.

Around 1970, I was a high school student, and a Buddhist, in Kyaukse, a town in Mandalay Division. Ethnic Chinese and Muslims were among my friends back then. I accompanied a Chinese friend to his house on Chinese New Year’s Day and ate my fill of Chinese snacks. On that day his father gave me a red envelope, too, in the Chinese tradition. Likewise, during Christmas time, my friends and I accompanied my English teacher, a Christian, when he went from house to house singing Christmas carols. In our caroling troupe, there were only three or four Christians—the rest were Muslims and Buddhists. Nonetheless, we sang Christian songs as one and very much enjoyed our time together.

Our happiest moments were during the famous “Elephant Dance Festival,” a well-known occasion in our country. During the festival, dozens of elephants, made out of a bamboo frame, papier-mâché and fine black satin decorated with intricate, colorful embroidery, compete for the prize of best elephant dance and most nicely decorated pachyderm. An amateur “elephant” team formed by me and my friends also joined the event. We were not very good at dancing, but we sang whatever songs came to our minds and danced as best we could. Our team comprised Buddhists, Muslims and Christians, and it was fun.

During the observance of Eid al-Adha, my friends and I accompanied our Muslim friends on visits to Muslim villages, where we were given up to eight kilograms of beef, and even stayed overnight in one of the villages. Back then, Eid was celebrated by Buddhists as well, with festivities including anyein (tradition dance troupe) performances. Buddhist monks were asked to take care of crowd control during the celebration, while Muslims and Buddhists in the audience were not to be outdone by one another in rewarding the dancers with applause and pocket change.

Such interreligious mingling, and the friendships it fosters and is fostered by, is increasingly rare in Burma these days. Eid is no longer celebrated by Buddhists—no anyein and no merrymaking anymore. Muslim communities keep themselves away from Buddhist pagoda festivals, and some Buddhists are guilty of equal associative discrimination. Both sides should not treat each other like this.

It is certain that the world is watching the religious situation in Burma as the country marches toward democracy—a political development that itself is considered a source of the problem, as complicated issues are more openly discussed, and inflammatory rhetoric is allowed to spread in the name of free expression. Both Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders should not take their eyes off this matter and should try their best to bring the situation back to the way it once was. I miss the goodwill and friendly relations among Christians, Muslims and Buddhists of my youth.

The first battalion commander I met after graduating from the military academy was Col Thura Kyaw Kyaw Cho. Though he was a Christian, the colonel initiated his two sons into the Buddhist order and accompanied them to monastery. During Christmas time, Tin Tin Myint, the commander’s Buddhist wife, led Christian soldiers on caroling rounds. I was the lead guitarist while Maung Thein, a Muslim, played bass.

The Christian commander died somewhere in the northeast, while Maung Thein retired from service with a medical pension after he was shot in the back. Christians and Muslims like these two men dared to sacrificed their lives for our country.

I will always miss my Christian commander and Muslim comrade in arms.

Those who are responsible for fomenting religious tensions should think about whether they are contributing to the kind of nation that we as a people aspire to, and those concerned about the state of relations between Buddhists and Muslims should speak up for the kind of interreligious harmony that Burma once knew.

Hla Swe, a retired lieutenant-colonel, is a member of the Upper House from constituency No. 12 in Magwe Division, representing the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

7 Responses to When Religious Diversity Was Embraced in Burma

  1. That ‘An opportunistic few’ can successfully controlled our lives for the past sixty years and they are on the throne without the people’s approval. They will keep dividing us for their own gains. They don’t care about the Union and its citizens. As long as USDP fails to embrace the multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, it will rather move its office on Mars from Nay Pyi Taw.

  2. It is so very encouraging to read this piece on ” embracing religious diversity ” …Yes that was what we enjoyed in my days then…a Burmese Muslim woman studying at a very well known school run by Methodist missionaries in Buddhist cultural environment…..we enjoyed the best of all cultures…..my Buddhist and Christian friends celebrated the end of Ramadhan at my home…we also celebrated Christmas at the school and also at my aunt’s home, who is a Christian but married to my muslim uncle who talked about respect for everyone and goodness of heart..

    When I visited Yangon last year, a Buddhist friend gave me three hundred dollars for charitable contributions of my choice….how did I spend it? A Muslim woman? I donated alarge sum to the Shwe DagonPagoda, Shwe Mawdaw, Shwe Thalyaung, and to Ziwitadhana Hospital in Yangon and felt very good about it.

    What has happened? Why are there so much antagonism and hostilities among people escalating? I have taken so much pride in explaining peaceful coexistence among all religions in my classes at American universities and also boastfully to American classmates.
    They have been questioning me about the religious violence which seem to be spiralling out of control.

    I can only bow my head and pray for understanding, respect, compassion and peace in the hearts of all.

  3. Creating conflicts between different religions people and instigating hatred among them to get more votes in coming 2015 election is murdering innocent people for political gains. No religions will forgive these kind of barbarian crimes. In 2007 this current Military Government killed lot of Monks without the respect of Buddhist religion and suddenly now they are trying to portray as safe guarders for Burmese Buddhist religion. Still some people are going to their folds

  4. I used to boast that although we didn’t have freedom of speech and freedom of press, we had freedom of religion in Burma. I guess we are losing freedom of religion as well. My mother, a Muslim was educated in American Missionary Schools and graduated from Judson College. She married my father, a Christian and I was raised as a Christian. However, we have interfaith marriages in my extended family and we get along well with each other. We celebrated Christmas, Eid and Burmese religious holidays and festivities with friends, relatives and neighbors. Religion had never been a barrier in our diverse community. Recently, I spoke with one of my Muslim cousins in Taunggyi and was sorry to hear that they are having a difficult time living as Muslims. I married a Buddhist man but he’s twice a year Christian; he attends Christmas and Easter Services. Likewise, I also go to Buddhist monasteries and join in their many celebrations. We live in the States and there’s no U Wirathu telling us how to live our lives.

  5. it is unusual that two Ladies with close Muslim connections and the writer an ex-military Buddhist person like myself an agnostic, look back to what was a working example of what was a Myanmar, where we got along with one another, like any large family, where Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians were not uncommon amongst the extended family.
    What has caused this apparent rift, is nothing peculiar to Myanmar, it is appearing in our close neighbours – take Malaysia, where like Myanmar there was no open division. However there is now an open policy of preferential treatment for Bumiputras.
    It appears, using a medical term, a VIRUS has taken hold of the humans, completely unexplainable, but apparently NATURE is setting a scene for the elimination of the species.

  6. What happened in the mean time ? Wahabism – and its literal fundamentalist interpretation of islam with Saudi and Qatar money and indoctrination …

  7. All the race riots started when an official from Christian Solidarity Worldwide started publishing the concocted photographs and invented stories of persecution authored by the Bengali terrorist groups with the names of Rohingya. So all the blame for instigating trouble in Burma must go to that person and that organization.

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