The Irrawaddy

Rakhine Conflict Primarily Political, Not Religious, Seminar Told

Moderator Saw Eh Htoo, right, and other panelists participate in the ‘Religions, Violence and Conflict in Rakhine State’ seminar at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand on Wednesday. 

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The violence in Rakhine State is not essentially religious, but stems from the use of religion to achieve political goals, international scholars said on Wednesday.

To promote religious freedom and tolerance, and to inform the public about the ongoing conflict in Rakhine State, a public seminar titled Religions, Violence and Conflict in Rakhine State was held at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Wednesday with the support of the U.S. Consulate in the northern Thai city.

Acknowledging the complexity of the situation in Rakhine, the academics — many of whom have visited Myanmar and/or Bangladesh recently — shared their experiences and perspectives in an effort to better understand the conflict. The scholars participated in panels devoted to a number of topics including ethno-religious politics, the international relations dimensions of the conflict, and the Rohingya refugee crisis, as well as a follow-up discussion after a viewing of the documentary film Sittwe.

“Religion is not the problem per se [in Myanmar], but the political use of the religion” is fueling the conflict, said Dr. Rey Ty of the Christian Conference of Asia, who has visited the country multiple times in recent years.

In his talk to some 90 audience members, he laid out the different perceptions of the “Rohingya Refugee Crisis.” Many in Myanmar, he said, prefer to refer to the group as “Bengali” Muslim interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh. While Myanmar sees the attacks by Muslim militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) as acts of terrorism perpetrated by foreign-funded Islamic separatists, the international community sympathizes with the Rohingya as the “world’s most persecuted minority” who are facing a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” according to the UN. More than half a million refugees fled in the space of a few weeks as the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, conducted clearance operations in response to a coordinated series of ARSA attacks that killed nearly a dozen security personnel in August last year.

Due to the enormous displacement of the Rohingya, the international community has leveled a lot of criticism at State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for remaining silent on the issue, despite her status as a Nobel Laureate and an icon of human rights and democracy.

The academics shared these concerns at the seminar but acknowledged that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s hands are tied as she tries to reconcile with the Tatmadaw.

Dr. Rey Ty stressed the importance of achieving a “reconciliation of the opposite perceptions” of people inside and outside the country.

According to Daw Mon Mon Myat, a freelance journalist and graduate student at the Department of Peace Studies at Payap University who served as a moderator, the seminar’s focus was on peace building, and the speakers’ views reflected all sides.

She told The Irrawaddy that the conference came to a shared view that “the conflict is not based on religious differences between Muslims and Buddhists” as portrayed in the current international media. “It is not about religion, it is due to the opportunists who focus on their own benefits. It is due to contending between those who attempt to create political benefits and the oppressors, which led to the flight of over 600,000 [residents of Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships in northern Rakhine State],” she said.

As the participants at Wednesday’s seminar included leaders of various religions such as Muslims, Christians and Sikhs and Buddhist monks, Daw Mon Mon Myat said she hoped “the message we obtain here can be disseminated to their communities through them.”

US consul general in Chiang Mai Jennifer Harhigh said in her opening remarks that the United States supported advocating for religious freedom as “increasing religious tolerance can reduce the likelihood of armed conflict, violent extremism and atrocities.”

“If we are not careful, religious belief, much like economic disparity, ethnicity or whole other elements, can be exploited to divide people, and to promote conflict,” she said.

The seminar also screened the documentary “Sittwe” by Jeanne Hallacy, an American filmmaker and youth educator.

The film shows the views of two teenagers, a Muslim Rohingya girl and a Buddhist boy, both affected by the communal conflict in Rakhine State in 2012. The 20-minuute-long film – screened internationally in a slightly different version from the original planned for Burmese release – was blocked by government censors from being shown in Myanmar at the Yangon Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival in June last year and to date remains banned in the country.

Nevertheless, It premiered in September at the Freedom Film Festival in Malaysia, where it won Best Southeast Asia Short Documentary, and was screened internationally in the US in November.

The organizers said their hope was that the screening of Sittwe would help raise awareness of the need for tolerance and reconciliation.

“It [Sittwe film] carries an important message, that educating our young people is absolutely critical to raise the awareness of the need for religious tolerance and to prevent the spread of religious conflict,” Harhigh said.