State Counsellor, Interfaith Leaders Offer Message of Unity and Understanding

By Nyein Nyein 8 May 2019

At a Naypyitaw advisory forum on national reconciliation and peace throughout Myanmar this week, the state counsellor and religious leaders of differing faiths urged people to respect one another’s faith, in order to bring about a more peaceful society.

The forum, organized by the group Religion for Peace-Myanmar (RfP), was the second part of an advisory forum held over two days, on May 7 and 8. Discussions focused on five key topics: access to education, women and youth empowerment, building unity among diverse ethnic groups, accepting the importance of differing faiths and the ongoing issues in Rakhine State.

RfP-Myanmar advocates for peace in Myanmar and across the world; their first such advisory forum in Myanmar was held in November. The group also promotes youth participation, seeking to integrate young people’s views through their exchanges for their Interfaith Youth Network, which they held in Yangon in March.

“Religious intolerance has never originated in Myanmar,” said venerable monk Dr. Dhammasami, also known as Oxford Sayadaw. “Myanmar was peaceful while other countries in the world had crusades.”

Thus, he said, Myanmar today should not allow intolerance to infiltrate its society.

“Myanmar people think positive, always, and we need to keep reinforcing this positive thinking. With mutual understanding, we can overcome the disputes that come from negative thinking, instead of [angry] reactions,” Ashin Dhammasami told reporters in Nyapyitaw.

While every religion teaches that respect and tolerance are the keys to peace, Buddhist-majority Myanmar continues to experience a number of communal conflicts sparked by differences of race and faith and—in Rakhine particularly—between Muslims and Buddhists.

Whether conflicts in that state among the Rakhine and the Rohingya; the interethnic fighting in Shan State between different ethnic armed groups; or the latest conflict between the ethnic Arakan Army and the government forces, or Tatmadaw, people from different ethnic or religous backgrounds are expressing enormous amounts of hate against one another in Myanmar today. These hatreds spread quickly in the age of social media, and reducing the spread of hate speech is a problem that no one has yet been able to solve.

In her opening remarks at the Forum on Tuesday, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also urged people to respect the country’s different faiths. Myanmar hosts a diversity of ethnic groups with various religious beliefs, she said; a “mutual respect among the different races and religions” will “improve peaceful and stable livelihoods and…prevent religious conflict.”

In addition, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said there is a need “to help those affected by the conflicts to rehabilitate and to participate and cooperate in nation building.”

Myanmar has been trying to achieve peace and end the fighting between government forces and the various ethnic armed groups since its seven decades of civil war began in 1948, shortly after independence, and it’s the same struggle that has now led Myanmar to its issues in Rakhine State, including the repatriation of some 700,000 Rohingya who’ve been forced to flee from their homes since August 2017.

Religious leaders echoed the state counsellor’s call for reconciliation, saying they firmly believe that they are the ones to counsel the laypersons.

“Our society needs peace in this time, when hate speech is easily available. The religious leaders of different faiths have a responsibility to right the people,” said Al Haj U Aye Lwin, the chief convener of the Islamic Center of  Myanmar and one of the key peace advocates. The current lack of peace, he said, hinders the development of education and proper healthcare.

Al Haj U Aye Lwin said the forum aimed to gather perspectives from people with different races, religious beliefs and thinking, and that the views expressed would be shared with those who can enact change at the national level.

“We also do what we can to reduce the spread of hate speech and disinformation in our respective communities. This is a focus during our peace education trainings, which scrutinize disinformation,” he told The Irrawaddy.

His Eminence Cardinal Charles Bo of the Catholic Church and a patron of RfP-Myanmar said the group “vows to continue working to achieve peace.”

Leaders said RfP-Myanmar will continue holding talks and conducting peace-building awareness trainings, to build respect, understanding and tolerance in the society and to end hate speech.

Another forum is planned for November, with an advocacy event highlighting unity and diversity to follow.

The problems facing Myanmar “are created by humans, so we believe we can find the way to overcome these problems,” said U Aye Lwin; that is why the religious leaders participate in such discussions.

Religious leaders urged people to learn about their own religious belief and to learn about other faiths as well.

“It would help protect from bad laypersons who want to use race, religion and faith for the wrong purposes,” U Aye Lwin said.

While the religious leaders focused their efforts on achieving peace and overcoming the conflict in Rakhine State, the government will also continue its task of accepting the return of Rakhine State’s displaced, currently sheltered in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

In Yangon on Monday and Tuesday, the Implementation Committee on [the late] Kofi Anan Commission’s Recommendations on Rakhine State held a workshop reviewing implementation plans.

Dr. Win Myat Aye, committee chair and union minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday that the government is trying its best for the returnees, but areas in northern Rakhine State are still facing armed conflict.