LASHIO, Shan State – As Lashio town became a refuge for thousands of people fleeing fighting between the government and Kokang rebels around Laukkai on the Chinese border in February and March, religious and community leaders rallied to provide aid and shelter in monasteries, schools and other buildings.
It was just the latest challenge for local leaders who for almost two years have been working quietly behind the scenes to mend the fallout from a previous crisis to hit the town.
In May 2013 inter-community clashes in Lashio left one person dead and others injured. Though the flare-up which followed a spate of similar events in other parts of the country quickly died down, tensions were left in its wake between communities that had previously lived peacefully side by side.
Since then, local leaders have worked hard to maintain peace and good relations between the different religious communities. They have focused on rebuilding trust and on making common cause against the power of rumors to ignite tensions.
It hasn’t always been easy, especially during the first few months after the clashes, said Ko Myo, a Buddhist community leader.
Soon after the May 2013 events, an informal interfaith group was formed that included Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Christian religious leaders as well as community members and volunteer youth.
It began meeting once or twice a month and focused on charity work. Its teams continue to visit local villages and remote areas to donate to schools and conduct free medical check-ups. Members have also taken aid to Kachin IDP camps.
It was difficult at first to persuade parents to allow their children to attend inter-religious youth events designed to let children learn about different faiths and living together harmoniously. Some children were also reluctant, Ko Myo said.
But after a time, the children of different religions became friends and were enthusiastic about the events in which they could mingle and discuss their ideas freely, he said.
Tin Aung, president of the town’s Islamic Religious Association, also said trust-building was hard at first. The inter-faith group was denied permission by some local authorities to visit remote villages as it included Muslim doctors. Some locals also did not wish to be treated by Muslim medics, he said.
The Panzagar (Flower Speech) movement against hate speech initially struggled to gain acceptance in Lashio. Locals were not interested and the authorities were reluctant to allow events seen as potentially raising tensions.
The interfaith group also ran into resistance from locals and authorities when it first tried to address the issue of hate speech.
People feared this was just another way of stirring things up.
But the group worked to show that addressing the issues of rumors and hate speech was a way to control them and the troubles they caused.
Over time, a common understanding about the need to resist rumors gained more traction.
Rumors spread by unknown sources had continued to plague parts of the town after the clashes, community leaders said.
“There were many rumors, and gatherings of angry mobs, any of which could have re-ignited the violence. But the community and religious leaders, with the help of township authorities, were able to control them by giving people the correct news in a transparent way,’’ said Ko Myo.
Rumors still continue, but nowadays most residents no longer automatically believe them, he said. Some people even approach the community and religious leaders to ask for the correct information.
And a network of youth with members in every quarter of the town is also ready to provide accurate information, Ko Myo said.
“Since our town is small, it is very easy to spread rumors. But it’s also easier to control them. It would be very difficult in larger places like Mandalay or Meikhtila,” he added.
The efforts in Lashio received recognition from the UN rights envoy Yanghee Lee after her visit in January.
“In the town of Lashio, in Northern Shan State, I was impressed by the commitment of inter-religious leaders to work together toward maintaining a peaceful community following attacks on the Muslim community in May 2013,” she said at a press conference in Yangon.
But for some, life is still raw. The charred remains of a Muslim orphanage still stands as an ugly reminder of the events of nearly two years ago. That the remains have not yet been cleared or rebuilt indicates the challenges still ahead.
Ma Aye Aye Win, a Buddhist who was burned by gasoline in the incident that ignited the violence in May 2013, says she and her family are still living in fear after the events.
“We don’t want such things to happen again, in our town or elsewhere,” she said.
Despite all they have achieved, religious and community leaders still worry that violence could break out again.
“We want to rely on the government’s protection. We desperately need fair protection, which provides for no discrimination between different races and religions,” Tin Aung said.
“At the same time, we have to work on our own to trust each other. No one can break peace and trust that we build with our hands,’’ he added.
It might be fragile, but so far, Lashio’s can-do approach seems to be working. ‘‘The two communities are living in peace like they did in the past. Life here is almost back to normal,’’ Tin Aung said.
This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.