Guest Column

When Religious Diversity Was Embraced in Burma

By Hla Swe 1 April 2014

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).