YANGON — The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture has asked the public for a “tolerant interpretation” of the minister’s recent remarks after he appeared to refer to Islam as an “extreme” religion putting Myanmar’s majority Buddhists in danger.
During the funeral ceremony for prominent Buddhist monk Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw in Karen State on Tuesday, Minister Thura U Aung Ko told the monks in attendance that Buddhism in Myanmar was in danger from the followers of another faith.
“When we Buddhists practice monogamy and raise families with one or two children, the followers of an extreme religion take three or four wives and have families with 15 or 20 children,” he said.
The minister, a former general, added that if the trend continued the proportion of Buddhists in the country would decline.
“Devotees of other religions will become the majority and we will be in danger of being taken over,” he said.
An estimated five percent of Myanmar’s population is Muslim; some followers practice polygamy.
Although the minister did not name the “extreme” religion he was referring to, an Islamic association based in Yangon rejected his use of the word.
“No matter what religion he was referring to, we are very sorry to see the word ‘extreme’ being used along with ‘faith,’ and we reject its use,” the Society of Enlightening Quranic Knowledge said in a statement on Wednesday.
On Friday, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture released a public announcement claiming that the minister’s use of the term ‘extreme’ was not targeting any one faith.
“It just refers to ‘religious extremists’ from every faith in the country,” it said.
“So please make a tolerant interpretation of what the minister said, and collaborate for peace and stability to avoid unnecessary problems,” it added.
Since 2012, Myanmar has seen deadly sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims in several parts of the country. At the same time, it saw the rise of an ultra-nationalist movement led by Buddhist monks such as U Wirathu who have denounced Islam, claiming that the country’s Buddhist foundations were under assault. Their rhetoric has tapped into a widespread fear in Myanmar that Muslims were outpacing Buddhists in terms of population growth.
Thura U Aung Ko used to be a senior official in the country’s previous ruling party, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, but was purged in 2016. He was appointed minister of religious affairs and culture after the National League for Democracy took power in early 2016.