Myanmar’s religious diversity: Dialogue trumps violence
By Archbishop Charles Maung Bo and Benedict Rogers | Friday, 23 August 2013
Two years ago, President U Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi met for the first time. That meeting heralded the beginning of a new era for Myanmar, which has led to the release of hundreds of political prisoners; more freedom for civil society, political activists and the media; preliminary ceasefires with almost all the ethnic armed resistance organisations; and the opening of Myanmar to the world.
There is much to be thankful for. For the first time in decades, there is talk of democracy and peace. While there is still a long way to go, at least the dreams of change that had once been but a distant desire appear a more realistic possibility.
True peace and real freedom, however, hinge on an issue that has yet to be addressed: respect for Myanmar’s ethnic and religious diversity. Unless and until a genuine peace process is established with the ethnic nationalities, involving a nationwide political dialogue about the constitutional arrangements for the country, ceasefires will remain fragile and will not result in an end to war.
The most urgent need is to stop the war in Kachin State and move towards a meaningful dialogue with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). But real peace will be achieved only when the guns fall silent and are put away across the whole nation; when people can return to their homes without fear, and the people of Myanmar enter into a dialogue with each other and with the government in an atmosphere of mutual respect.A distinct but inter-related and equally urgent challenge that must be addressed is religious harmony. The past year has seen shocking violence against Muslims in Myanmar, starting in Rakhine State in June 2012 but spreading to Meiktila, Oakkan, Lashio and other towns and cities. The violence and anti-Muslim propaganda has highlighted a deep-seated issue in Myanmar society: how to live with our deepest differences. No society can be truly democratic, free and peaceful if it does not respect – and even celebrate – political, racial and religious diversity, as well as protect the basic human rights of every single person, regardless of race, religion or gender.
A year on from the first wave of violence in Rakhine State, at least 130,000 people are displaced. They are living in conditions that the United Nations has described as “dire”. They are at grave risk of disease and malnutrition. They live in fear. Now, during the monsoon season, the humanitarian crisis grows. Whatever the politics of their status in the country, these are human beings who should be treated humanely. In Buddhism, the principles of metta(loving kindness) and karuna (compassion) apply to all living beings. In Christianity, the same principles exist: “Love your neighbour as yourself,” and, “Love your enemy.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is precisely that – universal.
The non-government organisations, faith-based groups, government officials and United Nations agencies that have tried to provide help to the marginalised deserve our recognition and appreciation. But there is an urgent need for much, much more. We appeal to the government to allow unhindered access to camps for the displaced in Rakhine State and ensure security for aid workers who feel threatened. We also appeal to donors, in Myanmar and internationally, to help provide the aid required. Many lives are at risk.
Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, as detailed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is perhaps the most precious and most basic freedom of all. Without the freedom to choose, practise, share and change your beliefs, there is no freedom. Other basic rights, such as freedom of expression, assembly, association and movement, hinge to some extent on freedom of conscience.
So when we hear people attacking those of other religious beliefs – physically or verbally – or using religious platforms to preach hatred, we are deeply saddened. Such hate speech is completely contrary to the teachings of the great religions of the world, completely contrary to the majority religion of Myanmar, Buddhism, and completely contrary to principles of human rights and respect for humanity. We therefore urge the authorities to take action to prevent the spread of further hatred and intolerance. We defend the right to free speech but not when it includes incitement to violence. We therefore urge the authorities to prosecute anyone found inciting violence and we urge religious leaders to discipline their clergy and lay adherents.
We call on everyone who has a position of influence – in politics, in religion, in the media, in education and in civil society – to use their voice to speak out against religious hatred and intolerance. In schools, there is a need to ensure that the religious and ethnic diversity of Myanmar is taught accurately and celebrated. The curriculum for religious education should ensure a fair and balanced understanding of all the religions of Myanmar. No one should ever be forced to change their religion, for such a practice is a serious violation of human rights. Religion and faith are matters of personal freedom and conscience.
These principles that we have set out apply to everyone, whether they are Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, animist or hold another belief. The crisis over the past year has particularly impacted the Muslim community and we grieve for the loss of life, the destruction and the fear inflicted on our Muslim brothers and sisters. But the principles and the challenges are important for us all. Many Buddhists have concerns about perceived Islamisation, which our Muslim brothers and sisters should work hard to address.
Around the world, there is a global Islamist agenda that causes concern. It is absolutely not the agenda of all Muslims – indeed, many Muslims are victims of this agenda – and the vast majority of Muslims have been unfairly scapegoated and stereotyped. But the agenda is there, unfolding in different ways in countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria, Syria and, most particularly at the moment, Egypt. In recent days more than 50 churches have been torched in Egypt by militant Islamists.
So it is understandable that some people in Myanmar see events in other parts of the world and are afraid. It is therefore in the interests of our Muslim brothers and sisters, and all the people of Myanmar, to engage in a frank, peaceful and respectful exchange of views. Our Muslim brothers and sisters should tell us sincerely what is in their hearts. What is their interpretation of their religion and their agenda? Only through interaction and education can misunderstandings be overcome. Inter-faith dialogue is needed in Myanmar now more than ever, at every level: between religious leaders, to set the tone, but perhaps more importantly at a grassroots level. What are the dreams, ideals and values that unite us, the people of different religions? Are there religious teachings, customs and practices that cause misunderstanding but which – if properly understood – can be respected and celebrated and contribute to the wider community?
Violence, discrimination and hatred are not solutions. To treat Muslims in the way they have been treated in Myanmar over the past year is no different to the way radical Islamists treat minorities in places such as Pakistan or Egypt. Indeed, such behaviour is likely to provoke the attention of radical Islamists outside Myanmar and may already have done so. Extremism breeds extremism. As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The best way to prevent further violence is to combat intolerance. The best way for any of us to share our beliefs is through the way we live our lives but dialogue is also essential. Through talking, getting to know each other and discovering that what we have in common is bigger than what divides us, we can build a Myanmar based on shared dreams, mutual respect and unity in diversity. In so doing, we can put decades of strife and conflict behind us.
His Grace Archbishop Charles Maung Bo is the Catholic archbishop of Yangon. Benedict Rogers works for the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and is author of 'Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads'.