“Whatever you do, do it with a nationalist vision. When you are looking, look with a nationalist point of view. When you are listening, listen with a nationalist’s ears.”
These are the opening lines to a speech made by extremist Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu that was uploaded onto YouTube in March 2013. This is what people like U Myo Win, an interfaith leader and educator in Yangon, are up against. But before I tell you about Mr. Win’s work, I’ll relay his take on how things got this bad in his home country.
Anti-Muslim Sentiment in Burma
Although Mr. Win does not claim that the military government and Buddhists are conspiring together to target Muslims, he highlights the intertwining roles of the two establishments. Mr. Win posits that the military needed a diversion in order to effectively take control of the country several decades ago. Muslims became the diversion and unfortunately the subject of much discrimination by the new government.
Mr. Win says that Buddhist monks and authorities are able to continue the military’s job with spreading anti-Muslim rhetoric by making emboldened claims that Buddhist religion, culture, and way of life are at risk of extinction due to “Islamization.” Despite the fact that Muslims comprise only 4% of the Burmese population, they do not hold important government positions, and that the building of new mosques is illegal, Buddhist extremists have managed to convince a large portion of the Burmese population that the country is truly at risk of becoming a Muslim majority country.
Why did the government need such a diversion? Because when they came to power, they requisitioned businesses, natural resources, and other sources of income in the country from the Burmese people. So instead of directing their anger and indignation at the government, many Burmese began to direct it at Muslims, with Buddhist monks fanning the flames.
Anti-Muslim sentiment and fear of Islamization is promulgated by various sources of propaganda throughout the country. The inflammatory speeches of prominent Buddhist nationalist monk Ashin Wirathu can be found on YouTube and Facebook, which also serve as a platform for his followers to engage in hate speech against Muslims. Leaflets are distributed to villages claiming that Muslims are systematically purchasing land under false names with money given to them by the Saudis, that Muslims have “heinous plots” to take over the country, and that parents must teach their children to not communicate with Muslims or buy goods from Muslims stores or their entire nationality will be at risk.
The effect of the propaganda is magnified by the fact that Burma’s education system vehemently discourages critical thinking. U Myo Win describes education as “copy and paste, listen and repeat.” Analytical skills are not taught in school. This means that from a very young age, Burmese children are taught to believe everything they hear from authority figures, like the government or Buddhist monks, without questioning.
U Myo Win’s Courageous Interfaith Work
So how has Mr. Win been able to educate over 4,000 community leaders about interfaith cooperation in such a hostile environment? It’s simple: he disguised it. Calling his courses “civil engagement training" and selling them as service learning was the key. But it’s not as if Mr. Win is lying; interfaith leadership at its core is civil engagement — coming together to promote sustainable social, economic, and educational growth within the community.
Founded by Mr. Win in 2008, the Smile Education and Development Foundation is a non-profit based out of Yangon, Burma "dedicated to eliminating poverty and unjust living conditions, and to developing responsible and productive citizens.” They use education as a means to create and encourage community leaders to be effective change-makers.
In 2014, the Smile Education and Development Foundation organized the Interfaith Youth Tour, and were able to call it just that. Students from Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Sikh faiths traveled to seven different cities in Burma, visiting over 40 religious sites and engaging with over 60 religious leaders from different faith backgrounds. Bringing children together for experiential learning and unbiased religious education is a crucial step towards undoing the effects of years of hate-inspired propaganda.
As a follow up to the Youth Tour, Mr. Win created the Interfaith Youth Services project, which asks those who participated in the Tour to commit four weekends in which they will plan and conduct service projects for different religious institutions. The goal of the project is to cultivate an interfaith network among students, while engaging them in humanitarian projects.
In addition to working with youth, Mr. Win is also reaching out to more moderate Buddhist monks in the country. While some of them are receptive to his message of interfaith cooperation, many are still skeptical. But it’s a start.
Mr. Win’s interfaith work speaks for itself — he is a fearless leader, bringing an unpopular message to people in a hostile environment. Perhaps what makes him so brave is the fact that he grew up as a Muslim in an entirely Buddhist community. Nearly all of his friends were Buddhist. Out of 1,000 students at his primary school, Mr. Win was one of only two or three Muslims.
But his status as a religious minority never stopped him from being class president and a motivated student leader. His motivation would take him all the way to York University, where he studied conflict resolution on a grant from the UK government. And because he believes in the power of the interfaith movement, Mr. Win brought that education back home to Burma.
Reasons for Hope
When asked what total religious freedom would look like in Burma, he said, “We would have the freedom to do daily religious practices and right to celebrate out beliefs.” That means that people would be able to the gather in churches and mosques for services, wear religious garments, and speak freely and proudly about their religious beliefs without fear of retribution. While Burma is surely a long way from achieving this, Mr. Win is optimistic because at their core, these feuding religions have similar values when it comes to peace.
“[True] Islam is encouraging peace. Islam is encouraging harmony in society. The Prophet Muhammad said you have to practice the middle way. That’s very similar to Buddhists.” He says that there is no “other” in true religion — there is no “them versus us,” no “owner or guest” of a single religion. Win can recite Buddhist and Islamic scriptures that call for peace and tolerance, and they sound quite similar.
And so in Burma, despite the deplorable state of religious freedom, despite the propaganda, despite the persecution, there still is faith in faiths.