Dealing with Rising Religious Tensions in Myanmar

By The Irrawaddy 25 May 2019

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the forced closure of Islamic prayer sites in North Dagon by a crowd of nationalists last week, why racial and religious instigation continue and how it should be handled. Ko Mya Aye, one of the 88-Generation students, and Ko Thet Swe Win of Synergy Center for Social Harmony join the discussion. I’m Ye Ni, the Burmese editor of The Irrawaddy.

I remember that the flames of racial hatred rose in 2012, the year The Irrawaddy returned to Myanmar, under U Thein Sein’s government. The flames erupted in Rakhine and spread to central Myanmar, and the situation was worst in Meiktila. And the flames nearly spread to Yangon and Mandalay. And the latest incident took place in North Dagon Township. The way the government handled and the way the public responded to racial and religious instigation from 2012 to 2019 has changed. It is fair to say that it has become more and more mature. The government has held interfaith prayers, and activists and NGOs have promoted social harmony. But why did that incident happen in North Dagon? How much [has] the authorities’ handling of such cases improved?

Mya Aye: Racial and religious problems are common in countries that undergo transition from dictatorship to democracy. To speak from [a] political, ideological point of view, the right-wing attitudes usually rise in such circumstances. Again, the military dictatorship exercised a system of divide-and-rule throughout its rule, taking advantage of the different identities of the people living in the country. Whenever such [racial and religious] problems arise, one of the views is that the problem is due to deliberate provocation. But on the other hand, we are now over 50 years old, and we have grown up under the military dictatorial rule, so we are sensitive to certain issues. For example, brawls are common in a ward. They are just a normal part of the life. One side may be hit in the fighting, but once religious and racial labels are put on it, it becomes a big problem. From the very beginning, the communities could not build understanding and [instead] have [an] underlying dislike for each other. And they did not have opportunities to build understanding. We can’t blame one side. This is my view. This is a Buddhist-majority country where loving-kindness flourishes. I [as a Muslim] grew up by a monastery, but there were only some small problems. If people are united, there is no chance to play on racial and religious feelings. But as the Muslim community feels they are discriminated against, they narrowed their angle. I mean they only live in their small angle, and have not tried to go outside and engage with the outside world. As to the handling by the government, as the case is connected with politics, the government will view it from a political perspective. We need to be aware of this. It has to take the opinion of the majority into consideration, and also has to consider how to ensure the rights of the minority. It has difficulties satisfying both at the same time. As everyone knows, racial problems arose with [the killing of] Ma Thidaw Htwe in Rakhine [in Maungdaw], and 10 [Muslims] were killed in Taungup. The government newspapers, in their reports, referred to them as Muslim kalars [a racial slur for people of Indian origin]. It was an unprecedented case. I think the government intentionally used it as a political tool, resulting in a brawl on Sule Pagoda Road. And we had to mediate. An investigation commission was formed. But the flame that ignited in Maungdaw spread to the whole country. It is a racial problem, but then religion was also meddled into it. There is a need to build mutual understanding, respect and trust between communities for people to protect and defend against the use [of racial and religious instigation] as a political tool. And the government, on its part, has to effectively enforce the rule of law. By the rule of law, I mean not favoring the majority or the minority, just treating them as citizens living in the country. If one group, either Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu or Christian, uses hate speech, the government must stop it in a determined way. Discrimination is not accepted in big democracies, and people, on their part, have to build understanding gradually. Only when they engage, will they understand each other, and only then there will be trust.

YN: We have experienced racial and religious conflicts since 2012. As Ko Mya Aye said, people are important in building trust, and Buddhist monks have actively participated in promoting social harmony. In the case of North Dagon, the Asia Light Sayadaw came and gave white roses to Muslim followers there, and also encouraged them. Organizations like Ko Thet Swe Win’s also [got] involved and presented white roses to Muslim followers at Bahadur Zafar Shar Dargah mosque. Why is it important to conduct such a campaign, and how important do you think it is to prevent racial and religious conflicts?

Thet Swe Win: When racial tensions were rising elsewhere in the country, we saw the signs of potential conflicts in Yangon. 969 [an anti-Muslim movement] stickers were a common sight in Yangon at the time. I have participated since that time to prevent racial problems. However, civil society organizations are always a step behind when it comes to those problems. We have been involved in responding to racial problems from the beginning. We have made tens of thousands of stickers [that say] “don’t let racial and religious conflicts [be] caused by you” printed and distributed across the country. We also persuaded [people] to replace 969 stickers with our stickers. The civil society organizations took various approaches to prevent racial conflicts. There have been many racial and religious conflicts since 2012. We civil society organizations—we are not as big as the government; we don’t have many mechanisms—responded as much as we could with the available sources. We worked to spread true news, and urged the people not to respond angrily to provocation. But then, we are always a step behind in tackling those problems. Since 2012, we have thought about ways and means to counter radical nationalism. But at the same time, the radical nationalism grew bigger and bigger and spread across the country. We civil society organizations are still thinking about how to counter it. There is a need to strengthen the networking between us. There have been many successful examples of preventing racial conflicts due to collaboration between civil society organizations. There were successful campaigns, online campaigns, signature campaigns and, the latest was [a] white rose campaign. We need to consider carefully, because there is a new narrative that accuses politicians, human rights activists and civil society organizations [of] protecting kalars. This narrative is accepted by many people, including the media. Our image was distorted and discord was sown between us and the people. We need to find a way to cooperate with the media and explain [to] people our beliefs and why we are doing this. Only then will we be able to give an effective message. Now, it is very easy to label us. We are labelled as dollar earners [those who benefit from Western governments to support Muslims] and kalar supporters. And some said that the idea of human rights is imported from Western countries, and it is not necessary in Myanmar. Such narrative[s] have been successful more or less. We are faced with a big challenge and it is time we think about how to counter it.

YN: As you said, our Irrawaddy media got the same label. No matter which posts we share, the comments are the same—critical of us. This reminds me of the speech given by former U.S. President [Barack] Obama at Yangon University during his visit to Yangon in 2012. He said in his speech that diversity is an asset. Sadly, it has not yet become an asset. The NLD government, after it came to power, organized large-scale interfaith prayers in order to reduce intolerance. What is your assessment of the current stage? Do you think the policies and laws of the government are sufficient?

MA: Frankly speaking, [they are] far from being sufficient. There are many weaknesses. What’s worse, no matter what the law stipulates, some instructions clearly show discrimination. For example, in [the] passport office, there are counters for mixed-blood only. It is completely against the democratic and human right norms. And there are problems in getting national ID cards. There is confusion between race and religion. For example, different nationalities follow Islam, and similarly not every Buddhist is a Bamar. The religion and the race are two different things. But at grassroots level, there is greater confusion between these two. There are two parts to this problem. As the government’s policies and laws are not sufficient, the minorities tend to live in their narrow angle. Taking a look back at history, people of all races and all religions worked in harmony in their independence struggle. There were many Muslim leaders like student union leader Ko Tun Sein and others. Not only Muslims were involved in it. They might not even think of themselves as Muslims, and they might think of themselves as Myanmar citizens.

YN: At the time, religion was not that sensitive.

MA: It was not. And we can clearly see the attitude of national leader Gen. Aung San [about race and religion]. [Former] ambassador U Pe Tin and others also took part [in the independence struggle]. We are not missing our golden days. Our Muslim community wants to reemerge from the narrow angle we lock ourselves in. As the two communities become more distant, it is difficult to build understanding. We want to make a community change, but the government needs to give a nod. When a person takes citizen’s rights, he also has to bear citizen’s responsibilities. The government needs to [enforce] the rule of law and the equal treatment of all citizens regardless of their racial identity. But as the government doesn’t provide that hope, it is difficult to pull people out of the narrow angle. To turn diversity into strength, there is a need to build deep understanding between diverse people. Some people are accusing Muslims of Islamizing in the country. According to the 2014 census, the Muslim population is just over 4 percent of the total population, which is just 5 million of the 54 million people [total]. There was no discrimination in the political circle in prison—Buddhists [were] my friends, comrades and brothers who would risk their lives to protect me. We don’t care at all about our religious identity—members of the KNU (Karen National Union) are Christians, and Ko Rahu is a Hindu. We are very humane toward each other. What makes me frustrated is that those who have gone through humane experiences are now in power. I don’t view the North Dagon incident as Buddhists disrupting Muslims. Buddhist people do not have such attitudes. It has been proven by Asia Light Sayadaw, Ko Thet Swe Win and the rest of the country. Myanmar people do not have such attitudes. We have had those problems due to some misunderstandings. This problem will push the country down into the abyss. The country will become a failed state without any hope of salvage. We have to stop terrorism no matter what religion practices it. There is a need for the people to get connected to prevent terrorism. The government must provide assistance to make it happen. The government itself must build diversity as an asset. What is the main ideology of our country, nationalism or democracy? Nationalism beyond a certain extent becomes fascism. I don’t blame the right-wingers. In Europe, the right wing does not ignore democracy and human rights. But in Myanmar, the right wing is blindly right-wing. We need to be very cautious about it. The leading ideology of our country should be democratic and [include] human rights. This is the transition we want. The government must treat all citizens—I don’t mean foreigners—in accordance with those norms. The government must work to strengthen communication between two [the] communities and get rid of old attitudes, and prevent terrorism from permeating into the communities.

YN: Ko Thet Swe Win, what else would you like to say?

TSW: I attach greater importance to the moral leadership of political leaders. As Ko Mya Aye has pointed out, humane values and humanity have started to die out in our society. There has been hatred, suspicion and jealousy in our society. Under such circumstances, the moral leadership of our leaders plays a crucial role. Frankly speaking, our leaders fail to provide moral leadership. Millions of Rohingya fled and many people died. Our leaders said nothing about that. I am not talking about if they are entitled to citizenship or not. They should at least acknowledge on humanitarian grounds that they had been living in the country, and are now in trouble after they left the country. Muslims have suffered, and Arakanese people are suffering now, and so are Kachin and Shan people. Only when a leader defines the norms and values of [a] society will people be able to follow. But now, the direction is not clear, and people don’t know who to follow. Fascism is already taking place in Myanmar. Fascist attitudes have not only taken root in those with power, but fascist attitudes and behaviors have unconsciously developed in ordinary people. There have been cases of group bullying and bigotry. These are the signs of fascism. Our leaders must be able to see it and fix it. One day when we have leaders who dare to say the country has no place for people with such amoral attitudes, and define clear moral standards for the society, then, hopefully there will be some changes to our society.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!