Seeking Peace for Myanmar Along Interfaith Lines

Panelists at the “Interfaith Academic Conference for Security, Peace and Co-existence,” held October 1-2 at the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy Yangon

Seeking Peace for Myanmar Along Interfaith Lines


Early in October 2013 an “Interfaith Academic Conference on Security, Peace and Coexistence” was convened in Myanmar to comparatively discuss religion, security, and citizenship, and the relationships between education and extremism in central, south and southeast Asia.

The Oct. 1-2 conference was held at the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy, Yangon, Myanmar, in joint partnership with the US-based Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), and was attended by 226 participants including government officials, academics, and religious leaders from that region, including Myanmar.

On the first day of the conference, sadly, began a new wave of attacks against Muslim homes and mosques by Buddhist mobs — this time in the Thandwe township, Rakhine (Arakan) State, on Myanmar’s western border. These attacks in Thandwe, that were to continue for four days and leave at least five Muslims dead and two mosques and up to 70 Muslim homes burned down, might have cast a shadow on the conference proceedings, but instead made its purpose all the more urgent.

According to Dr. Chris Seiple, President of the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), “Naturally, especially given events, there was some focus on Rakhine, which Chief Convener of the Islamic Centre of Myanmar Al Haj U Aye Lwin so courageously brought up with the Venerable Sitagu Sayadaw on the first day.”

The Venerable Sayadaw – one of the oldest and most influential Buddhist monks in Myanmar, is known for his charity work and community engagement. Al Haj U Aye Lwin, in addition to his work at the Islamic Centre of Myanmar, is also founding member of the Religions for Peace/Inter-religious Council’s Myanmar branch.

Anti-Muslim violence has been an ongoing problem in Myanmar in recent years. Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in a recent interview with the BBC’s Mishal Husain blamed what she described as “a climate of fear” for exacerbating tensions between Muslims and Buddhists – and, asked about reports that 140,000 Muslims have been forced to leave their homes, noted that many Buddhists had also fled Myanmar.

Unlike the Rohingya Muslims, who are stateless and heavily persecuted in Myanmar, Kaman Muslims — targets in the latest wave of violence — are among the 135 official ethnic nationalities recognized by the government. (For a primer on the roots of Buddhist/Muslim conflict see Oxford scholar Matt Walton’s piece on ISLAMiCommentary this summer )

Chris Seiple, Director, Institute for Global Engagement, addressing the conference

“Rakhine is a most complicated situation, with issues of (illegal) migration, ethnicity, natural resources, (hidden) political agendas, corruption, little to no education, scriptural illiteracy, and, as a result, religion being manipulated to validate violence against the other,” wrote Seiple in a post-conference email to participants. “In recent years, however, it has been the Muslim minority that has suffered most at the hands of a Buddhist majority.”

Seiple, in his email continued:  ”There are many definitions of principled pluralism and democracy, but their essence is always the same: Will the majority culture celebrate and integrate the minority, as full and equal citizens under the rule of law? In conflict situations where religion is being used to validate violence, such a process must begin with the faith leaders from the majority religion. They must lead the way, preaching the best of their faith against the worst of religion, providing permission for the majority to live out the Golden Rule (a version of which is found in every faith).”

Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, who was originally scheduled to speak at the interfaith conference, that week made his first visit to Rakhine since  sectarian violence there that left nearly 200 people dead and thousands displaced in June 2012.

The President’s visit had been scheduled before the outbreak of violence, and he was in other parts of Rakhine State when the arson attacks began in Thandwe. However, as local media reported, on the 3rd day of the violence, President Sein travelled to Thandwe for a one-day visit to speak to and meet with town elders from both the Muslim and Buddhist communities. At the beginning of his speech he reportedly said, “It seems that disturbances are following me wherever I go.”

Less than a week after President Thein Sein’s visit, the Venerable Sayadaw and Al Haj U Aye Lwin went to Rakhine State together to survey the damage to a village in Thandwe township and speak with the local Buddhist and Muslims communities.

Al Haj U Aye Lwin speaking to the Buddhist mass at Thandwe City Hall

Here is an account of that trip to Thandwe written by Al Haj U Aye Lwin:

We came back on October 8th safe and sound by the Grace of the Almighty Lord, and I would say our mission was a success.

On Day 1 (October 7) of our trip, I participated in a mass being given by the Venerable Sitagu Sayadaw. We were at Thandwe City Hall in Rakhine state, Myanmar (In Myanmar it is not unusual for a Buddhist mass to be conducted at a government building.)

Citing Jataka stories (a genera of Buddhist literature; sermons by Buddha that teach lessons), the Venerable Sayadaw both warned the assembled local Buddhists — including town officials — of the bad consequences that await those who believe in rumors, and cautioned that there are dangerous people with hidden agendas who are out to incite violence to achieve their “sinister plans.”  He ended his sermon by urging the Rakhine Buddhists to live peacefully with the Muslims who live on the same soil, but have a different faith.

When it was my turn to speak, I also spoke from the heart. “The beauty of Myanmar is unity in multiplicity, and diversity is something the people of Myanmar people are always proud of,” I told the group.  I warned about those people who are hijacking the religion and inciting trouble to destabilize Myanmar; and using this instability to serve their political purposes.

The next day (Oct. 8), the Venerable Sayadaw and I met with Muslims at the District Commissioners’ Office in Thandwe town, Rakhine state. (The District Commissioner is in charge of administration in Thandwe).  About 150 Muslim elders including local imams attended the program. The Venerable Sayadaw told the Muslim group that it wasn’t his intention to preach to them or blame them. He said he just wanted to share some teachings of Lord Buddha and give some suggestions and advice.

Referencing the stories of Jataka again, he explained the need for mutual respect, spoke out about the negative consequences of division, and stressed the importance of moral character and wisdom in establishing peaceful co-existence. He told them to be on guard against those who would use religion as a political tool.

Then I took the floor. I addressed “the Islamic concept of humanism, acceptance, and believing and showing respect according to the teaching of the Qu’ran and the sayings of the Holy Prophet and all Holy enlightened figures who had appeared on the Earth in different ages and different palaces to emancipate (the people from) suffering and eliminate evil.”

“It is the basic belief of Islam to believe in all of the prophets. Though only 25 are mentioned by Names in the Holy Qur’an, there are a lot whose names are not mentioned, but all Muslims must accept and believe in without discrimination,” I continued. “The saying of the Holy Prophet gave the number of Enlightened ones that appear on earth as 124,000. (Reference from Qur’an 42:13, 5:48, 4:163, 4:164, 4:165 ).”

I also emphasized the Qu’ranic injunction to “repel the misdeed done by the enemy to us with a good deed for these perpetrators. Then one who harbors hatred against us will become an intimate friend (41:34).”

I cited historical facts that Islam had reached Myanmar more than 1200 years ago and that we Muslims are part and parcel of the society. I also recounted the historical figures that served in various capacities under different administrations, and told them that my father was awarded a number of medals including a medal for his role in Burma’s struggle for independence and post-independence nation-building activities.

I told them that when one of my friends dared to call me Kalar, I responded by asking what his Bamar father was doing when my father was fighting for Burma’s freedom. (The Bamar people or Burmans are the dominant ethnic group in Myamar. Myanmar Muslims are often called Kalar – a degrading and derogatory term that loosely translated means ‘foreigners from India’)

Following our speeches, Lt.General Hla Min and senior officials took us by helicopter to Thapyu Kyain village in Thandwe township. (An ethnic Kaman Muslim fishing village located about 15 miles (25 km) from Thandwe town, this was where the arson attacks had started a week before, before spreading to other villages.)

As soon as we entered the village it seemed to us that the Thapyu Kyain villagers, despite religious differences, had no major problems with each other.

Compared with the whole Rakhine State, if not the entire country, the Thandwe township had experienced the least racial and religious tension. But, just before the outbreak of violence, some members of the nationalist Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion group played DVDs of hate sermons and songs – right from Thandwe City Hall – and local authorities in Thandwe did nothing to stop it.

Things seem to have calmed down since the chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) in Thandwe township was arrested in connection with the arson attacks, and five other Rakhine citizens, including two from the Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion were detained.  (The RNDP party, known for its anti-Muslim hate speech, saw success in the 2010 election, with many RNDP politicians gaining seats in the Rakhine state parliament. The Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion is an ultra-nationalist NGO with no official registration.)

According to media reports, at the close of his visit to Thandwe, President Thein Sein had specifically ordered Lt. General Min and the regional military commander to get to the root cause of the attacks. Special forces (police) directly sent by the government, and under the command of Min, made the arrests without using the local Thandwe police force, who were only made aware of these raids when the suspects were taken to be locked up at the Thandwe police station.

… It is my feeling that the majority of the people in the area want peace and harmony, but because they live in poverty and are struggling just to make ends meet, they have been afraid to speak out against those ultra-nationalist political officials and racist groups who seem to be getting support from outside the township.

Al Haj U Aye Lwin standing next to the Venerable Sayadaw at the Thandwe airport, Rakhine State, Myanmar

When the Venerable Sayadaw and I arrived in Thandwe – a Buddhist and a Muslim – we were very keen to visit the most affected and damaged area in the township.

The Venerable Sayadaw made the initial request to officials, and they made arrangements for our visit. He promised the villagers of Thapyu Kyain to renovate the existing primary school and build a new medical clinic in the village, but funds are still needed to rebuild the houses in four other villages affected by violence.

We visited the village to give hope to the victims and to find the best way to assist them. It won’t be our last.

“What a beautiful and global example that the Venerable Sitagu Sayadaw has set for us, traveling to Rakhine with Al Haj U Aye Lwin. Next steps include the Venerable Sitagu Sayadaw giving a similar sermon in Yangon, even as he builds hospitals for Rakhine State. To be sure, there is much work to be done. But such leadership is the sine qua non of a safe and sacred space where peace and justice can embrace, while truth and mercy kiss. May we each try to follow it in our respective countries.”—Dr. Chris Seiple, President of the Institute for Global Engagement.

Interfaith Academic Conference for Security, Peace and Co-existence

Participants of the “Interfaith Academic Conference for Security, Peace and Co-existence,” held October 1-2 at the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy Yangon campus, Myanmar

Conference Resolutions

The Interfaith Academic Conference on Security, Peace and Coexistence was held at Sitagu International Buddhist Academy, Yangon in joint partnership with the Institute for Global Engagement on 1-2 October 2013. The conference further deepened interfaith understanding among religious leaders of multi-religious and multi-ethnic societies, and was attended by (226) participants including government officials, academics, and religious leaders from different parts of the world and over 200 observers. The conference addressed common challenges on security and peace at the regional and global levels.

At the end of the conference the participants agreed upon the following objectives.

–  We understand that this dialogue is the beginning of the beginning and that this dialogue must take practical form at the local level.

–  We recognize the need for frequent discussion and conference among the leaders of different faiths in a spirit of mutual respect.

–  We believe that peace and security are the two indispensable ?factors, to which all faiths contribute, and without which all religion cannot co-exist to prosper.

–  We note 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.

–  We consider that poverty is a significant cause of conflict and religious leaders should work together to serve their common neighbour.

–  We feel that there is a need to empower and include the youth and women utilizing their resources in enhancing the interfaith action.

–  We recognize the vital role of media and will include them as equally responsible stakeholders in our dialogue at the national and local level.

–  We need to balance modern education with moral education.

–  We urge the people to build a happy and meaningful life by ?virtue of truth.

–  We note the importance of education in developing national ?identity and multi-faith consciousness.

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