Still a gentle people

Amina Rasul

Posted on October 11, 2013

LAST WEEK, I escaped the turmoil of Zamboanga City to speak at an interfaith conference on “Security, Peace, and Co-existence” in Yangon, Myanmar. Jointly organized by Dr. Chris Seiple (Institute for Global Engagement) and Sitagu Sayadaw (Sitagu World Buddhist Academy), the conference took place in Yangon on October 1 and 2, attended by over a hundred leaders of Myanmar’s five main religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Highlighting the urgency of the subject matter, fighting again broke out between the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya peoples, the day before the conference started. Six Muslims were killed and hundreds of houses burned. According to the news, the Rohingya claimed that government troops supported the Rakhine. Buddhism is the dominant faith among the ethnic Bamar (or Burmans), Shan, Rakhine (Arakanese), Mon, Karen, and Chinese. Islam, on the other hand, arrived thru Rakhine -- on the Arakan coast -- by the 9th century, reportedly prior to the establishment of the first Burmese empire in 1055 AD in Bagan State. Recorded history tells of Muslims in Bagan and Rakhine who were traders, settlers, as well as royal advisers and government men. Most of the Muslims would call themselves Rohingya. Today, the Rohingya are predominantly Muslim mostly found in the Rakhine State, where they have become stateless. Their history has become covered in a different historical frame where they are now called Bengali and seen as illegal aliens from Bangladesh.

How did such ethnic and religious violence become rooted in a Buddhist majority community? I have always had a mental image of Buddhists as a pacifist and gentle people, prevented by their faith from killing any living thing -- even a pesky dengue-carrying mosquito. Even during the Saffron Revolution of 2007, when Buddhist monks joined hands with the citizenry to protest the brutal military government, even as troops fired on monks, the image was still one of Buddhist pacifism and self-sacrifice.

Then I met the Buddhist monk Wirathu, labeled on the cover of Time Magazine (July 1, 2013) as the “Face of Buddhist Terror.” Our host organization arranged for us to meet with Wirathu at his academy. In front of the building where we were supposed to meet, two huge, gory tarpaulins with photos of brutally slain monks -- one with his intestines hanging out -- were posted. I was shocked and nauseated by the photos, posted inside a Buddhist academy! No wonder monks have become violent.

Wirathu is the spiritual leader of the 969 Movement, a nationalist Buddhist group opposed to what it sees as Islam’s expansion in Myanmar. He explained to us that 969 is a numeric symbol representing the three Gems of Buddhism: 9 special attributes of the Lord Buddha; 6 special attributes of his Dhamma or Buddhist Teachings; and 9 special attributes of Buddhist Sangha or monks.

I failed to comprehend how a symbol of Buddhism could be associated with hate of another faith. But it has. 969 Movement is now the lead of the anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine State, particularly against the Rohingya.

Wirathu noted that the Muslims, because the men can have four wives, are breeding too fast, a strategy to become the majority faith of Myanmar. In a previous interview, he was reported to have said: “We must keep Myanmar Buddhist.”

He is also reported to have said: “Taking care of our own religion and race is more important than democracy.”

Unfortunately, Wirathu is charismatic -- with his serene face, soft voice, and gentle smile. His message resonates strongly with the Buddhist majority, fearful of the global marketing of Islam, post 9/11, as a religion that condones violence on its way to become the faith of the world.

While at the conference, I received the recent analysis of the Myanmar situation from the International Crisis Group. ICG stated: “Unless there is an effective government response and change in societal attitudes, violence could spread, impacting on Myanmar’s transition as well as its standing in the region and beyond.”

Luckily for Myanmar, there are influential Buddhist monks, such as the Sitagu Sayadaw, who call for leaders of faith to unite and resolve the ethnic divisions among the peoples of Myanmar. Sayadaw is a Burmese term for “royal teacher” or abbot. Sayadaw Ashin Nyanissara is one of the most prominent in Myanmar, who had founded the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy with a branch in the United States, a hospital, and monasteries. While Wirathu hid behind a placid mask, the Sitagu Sayadaw exuded life in full bloom. He was a real person, who laughed and connected to each of us in the delegation on a personal level.

Very charismatic and fluent in English, he has been able to reach out to the international community to, perhaps, neutralize the image of militant monks. His many social projects -- such as the hospital which provides services for free -- show how firmly he believes that Buddhists must be part of the community, and not just be inward looking while in search of nirvana.

Led by the Sitagu Sayadaw,the conference participants unanimously called on government and leaders of faith to work together to address the ethnic and religious conflicts between the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya Muslims.

Echoing the call of the Sayadaw, President U Thein Sein’s message cited the fundamental teachings of all faiths conflicts should be settled with truth, love, kindness and tolerance. The President could not join the influential Sayadaw, proceeding instead to Rakhine State to intervene in the conflict. U Thein Sein reminded that the ethnic conflict and the image of Buddhist Myanmar oppressing the Rohingya tarnishes the image of the nation as well as obstructs the path of reform. The situation hampers the transition of Myanmar to a strong and economically stable democracy, noting that only an”all-inclusive democracy can guarantee long-term progress and peace and stability of a country like Myanmar formed with numerous indigenous people of different races, religions and culture.”

The Myanmar participants of the conference were anxious to preserve the image of Myanmar as the land of gentle people, indigenous groups co-existing in harmony. Myanmar kings of old had welcomed different faiths into the empire, welcoming Islam and allowing the imams to construct mosques hundreds of year ago.

The conference participants agreed to pursue regular and frequent dialogue, particularly at the local level. The conference statement, focused on the urgency of the worsening religious conflict, expressed the belief that “peace and security are the two indispensable factors, to which all faiths contribute, and without which all religion cannot co-exist to prosper.”

Further, the faith leaders stressed that “we cannot co-exist practically without the security of mind. To have the security of mind, efforts should be made to maintain the teaching of all professed faiths. We will strive to find common ground by adopting the concept of unity in diversity.We will endeavour to build bridges of practical cooperation in our multi-religious and multi-ethnic societies for better understanding of other religions and reduction of tension.”

I mused about the similarities and differences between Myanmar’s ethnic conflict and the situation in Zamboanga City. While discrimination between majority and minority is common in both conflicts, Myanmar is enmeshed in a people to people struggle while that of Zamboanga is between an armed ethnic group and the state. I thought: in spite of the severity of the crisis, how much easier it is to resolve the Zamboanga predicament as compared to the Rohingya situation. And counted myself lucky, if that was at all possible.

However, at the end of the day, as I shared during my talk, we are all in the same boat. Whether it is the ASEAN boat, the Myanmar boat, the Mindanao boat. United we sail together; disunited we sink -- still together.