Amid Religious Tensions, Interfaith Advocates Work for Harmony

By San Yamin Aung 17 January 2017

PEGU — With both communal tensions and religious nationalism apparent nationwide, advocates say that the time is ripe to further embrace interfaith dialogue in Burma.

Alumni of interfaith dialogue trainings conducted by the Judson Research Center (JRC) of the Myanmar Institute of Theology met Saturday in Pegu Division. They said that by exchanging views, there are opportunities to learn from one another. Burmese interfaith advocates have stressed the importance of engaging in such practices, in order to build friendship, mutual understanding and trust between different religious communities.

“Dialogue is the one thing which can transform conflicts into peaceful outcomes. […] We can even say that interfaith dialogue is more necessary now,” said JRC director Dr. Saw Hlaing Bwa.

Twenty-seven participants of different faiths from across Burma attended the meeting held by the JRC with the support of British Embassy on Jan. 13-14 at Pann Pyo Let Forest Center, Peaceful Botanical Garden, in Pegu’s Kyauk Tan village.

During the discussion on Saturday, the participants—who are working to promote interfaith dialogue in their respective regions—emphasized that now “is the time to teach the good points of other religions and encourage religious tolerance.”

Working for the promotion of interfaith studies, dialogue and understanding of current affairs in Burma since 2003, JRC conducted five interfaith dialogue trainings for around 100 youths from different faiths across the country as part of their programming.

Interfaith activities attracted more public attention in Burma after unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012 in Arakan State left more than 100 dead and about 140,000 displaced.

Critics have said that former President U Thein Sein’s government failed to take quick and decisive action against the incitement and perpetration of religious violence, or to quell tensions and provide for the displaced in Arakan State. Anti-Muslim rhetoric soon spread to other parts of the country, and deadly ethno-religious violence later erupted in several major towns.

Attacks on police outposts by Muslim militants in northern Arakan State last October fueled nationalist groups’ anti-Muslim sentiments, as well as heightening tension between Buddhist and Muslim communities in the region.

Dr. Saw Hlaing Bwa said the idea of engaging in interfaith understanding is still new to many communities in Burma, as mistrust and misconceptions about other religions remain prevalent.

“Doubts and concerns about communal unrest exist amongst the public. These ‘created’ conflicts will occur as long as there are those who benefit from them,” he said.

While he explained that dialogue is an approach that allows for conflict to be confronted peacefully, Dr. Saw Hlaing Bwa said that unless there is legislated equality and a rule of law which applies to all faiths in the country, dialogue alone might not be enough to bring change.

The JRC’s approach to dialogue trainings is not overly ambitious. Practitioners hope that the approach will be applied by individual attendees from the trainings in their encounters with relatives and colleagues, and in their respective hometowns and regions.

“I strongly believe that through interfaith dialogue, sustainable peace and development will be gained,” the organization’s director said.