Pagoda Near Church Inflames Religious Tensions in Karen State

By Lawi Weng 25 April 2016

RANGOON — A Buddhist monk and spiritual leader of an ethnic armed group stoked religious tensions last week when he and his followers built a pagoda on the property of an Anglican Church in Hlaingbwe Township, at Kondawgyi village in Karen State.

The monk, U Thuzana, is also an influential figure within the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), a splinter group of the predominantly Christian-led Karen National Union, a fellow ethnic armed organization.

Hundreds of his supporters this month brought bricks, cement and other building materials to construct the pagoda. Some among the group were members of the DKBA and wore military uniforms while building the shrine.

This was not the first time U Thuzana, 73, has used provocative measures to “proselytize.” The monk believes that these types of actions will generate good karma, according to a Karen Buddhist leader in Hpa-an, the state capital.

“[U Thuzana] follows his heart, which tells him where to build the pagodas,” said Saw Kyaw Zwa, a Buddhist leader from the Karen Affairs Committee. “Of course there are critics who condemn him for building a pagoda near land controlled by another religion. But our monk is just trying to realize his dreams.”

The Karen leader added that U Thuzana previously built a pagoda in front of a police station.

Some religious leaders from the church asked U Thuzana not to build the pagoda, but when they realized he would not stop, they simply erected a fence between the church and the pagoda, said Saw Kyaw Zwa.

Community leaders from Karen State have formed a committee to address religious problems, particularly in the case of U Thuzana. But the septuagenarian monk continues to build pagodas near Christian areas.

“Our committee and some senior Buddhist monks asked [U Thuzana] to stop building pagodas at Christian churches, but he will not waver from following his dream,” said Saw Kyaw Zwa.

The Christians have been understanding, said Saw Kyaw Zwa, while adding that it would be better to stop U Thuzana now so he doesn’t create more religious tensions in the future.

Many critics condemned the actions on social media, but Bishop Saw Stylo in Hpa-an posted a message on his Facebook page addressing his followers: “I would like to urge you, Christians of Karen State, not to harbor grudges or hatred, and not to attack, but to practice benevolence, compassion and detachment.”

“Christ said that those who have a heart of gold receive his blessing and shall see God. I would like to urge all of you to have a heart of gold so that you can see God,” the post continued. “Avoid fighting but rather practice love and benevolence.”

“We believe that this sort of thing should not happen,” Saw Ahtoe, a religious affairs leader from the KNU told the Karen Information Center. “Karen has a long history of religious problems. We may write the government to take action, or we may write directly to the DKBA. We will join with other religious leaders to solve this problem.”

U Thuzana helped found the DKBA in 1994, splitting from the KNU amid claims that Christians in the organization discriminated against its Buddhist member. The group was originally named the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. The DKBA in its early years aligned itself with the Burma government, and U Thuzana formed close ties with former Burma Army generals, who helped strengthen his forces.