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U Aye Lwin: A Voice of Reason in an Uncertain Burma

U Aye Lwin: A Voice of Reason in an Uncertain Burma

U Aye Lwin has a gift — he can look through the hatred, the lies, and the propaganda and see the truth. A “humble student of religion,” Mr. Lwin is humble indeed. He has a lot to brag about — he is a founder and co-member of Religions for Peace Myanmar, holds an esteemed position as an administrator in Yangon’s diplomatic school, and is a trustee of a historic mausoleum of a Sufi saint. But he doesn’t like to brag. Instead, he says, “I try to be a very humble Sufi.”

Search for Truth

Mr. Lwin’s humility pairs well with his wisdom. He is not poisoned with thoughts of seeking revenge on the government or extremist Buddhist monks who have been inciting violence against Muslims in his country. Instead, he looks towards the root causes of the rise of Buddhist nationalism in Burma. 

He explains that many Buddhist monks and adherents are convinced that their religion, culture, and way of life is in danger of extinction and that Islam is poised to take over their country. “This kind of information has been embedded in the psyche of most of us. So I wouldn’t say that it is Islamaphobia — it is misinformation that the Burmese people have regarding Islam.” 

Tracing this misinformation regarding Islam back to the 1962 military coup lead by General Ne Win, Mr. Lwin claims that distorting the religion of Islam and twisting historical facts was part of a calculated plan by the military to gain popular support and was crucial to the success of the coup. Since then, Buddhist nationalists have been citing the historical decline of Buddhism and subsequent rise of Islam in parts of Southeast Asia as evidence that Islam is an unrelenting threat in the region. 

These are what Mr. Lwin calls dangerous “half-truths.” He explains that, for instance, the decline of Buddhism in parts of Afghanistan and Bangladesh began centuries before the Prophet Mohammad was even born and thus before Islam even existed. “Half-truths are very, very dangerous. More dangerous than fabricated stories,” Mr. Lwin says. And when these half-truths become embedded in the culture and the psyche of the Burmese people, the spirit of tolerance dissolves. 

Reviving the Spirit of Tolerance

“What we are doing at Religions for Peace Myanmar is trying to revive the spirit of tolerance… Buddhism is a very tolerant, very peaceful religion.”

RfP Myanmar promotes religious education for children so that they can arm themselves with knowledge in the face of the onslaught of propaganda and "half-truths." The Interfaith Youth Network at RfP Myanmar advocates for peace building through organized activities and hands-on learning such as visits to religious sites and volunteering in local HIV/AIDS centers. They also teach youth about the electoral process in Burma, civil society, hate speech, and nutrition.

RfP Myanmar is also on a quest to remind people that in times of conflict, those most vulnerable are women and children. RfP’s Women of Faith Network is a diverse action-oriented group of women working to advance women’s involvement in the peacebuilding process as well as promote gender equality and prevent domestic violence in Burma. 

This year, the Interfaith Youth Network and Women of Faith Network joined forces to organize an interfaith event in Meikhtila, Burma to help clean up and plant trees at a Buddhist monastery where 800 Muslims sought sought refuge and were protected from violent mobs in March 2013. These kinds of activities are crucial to the peacebuilding process in areas with a history of violent religious conflict, like Meikhtila.

The Tolerant Mindset

Mr. Lwin’s mindset is equally as impressive as his work with RfP Myanmar.

“As a Muslim, I have a duty first to instill peace in my mind and my soul and try to have some peace in my heart before spreading the peace. As a member of the Islamic faith and a follower of Sufism, it is my duty to establish peace.” 

Recognizing the importance of inner peace, he says, “It’s no use talking about peace if your heart is heated with fire.” It is easy to tell that Mr. Lwin’s heart is not heated with fire at all. He takes special care to separate the perpetrators of intolerance and violence towards Muslims from their faith tradition, Buddhism. 

“I say often that in our country, religion has been hijacked.” Mr. Lwin recognizes that the hateful words and actions of extremist Buddhist monks in no way accurately reflect the values of the Buddhist faith. He is not bitter towards Buddhists or Buddhism in general. He even goes as far as saying that if true Buddhism prevails in Burma, the whole country will flourish, explaining that true Buddhism promotes tolerance and peace.

Judging from the current state of freedom of religion and the persecution of Muslims in Burma, it is clear that the country needs more men like Mr. Lwin. People who understand the complicated history of their country. People who constantly search for the truth. People who positively seek change in their communities. People who aren’t blinded with hatred and anger. People who seek peace within themselves. People who never stop seeking peace for others.

U Myo Win: Burma's Fearless Interfaith Leader

U Myo Win: Burma's Fearless Interfaith Leader

“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.

 Sign hung by the military government in the city of Mandalay. Credit: Matthew Goulding / Flickr

Sign hung by the military government in the city of Mandalay. Credit: Matthew Goulding / Flickr

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.

 Mr. Win and his staff at the Smile Education and Development Foundation. Credit:  SEDF

Mr. Win and his staff at the Smile Education and Development Foundation. Credit: SEDF

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. 

 Students participating in the Interfaith Youth Services project. Credit:  SEDF

Students participating in the Interfaith Youth Services project. Credit: SEDF

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.

What You Need to Know About Burma

What You Need to Know About Burma

Burma, now called Myanmar, is a country filled with complexities and stark juxtaposition. Burmese men wear western-style button up shirts tucked into their traditional longyis. Tea houses and cafes are filled with people watching a screening of a Hollywood film as they sip Burmese tea. Buddhist monks in their orange and crimson robes shuffle past Muslim women wearing hijabs. The country even has two names. 

 
 At night in Mandalay, everyone flocks to cafes playing action movies while sipping Burmese tea.

At night in Mandalay, everyone flocks to cafes playing action movies while sipping Burmese tea.

 

But behind all this contrast lies a country with a complicated past and a worrisome future. After interviewing three men promoting interfaith cooperation in their country, I concluded that writing about their work without giving readers a brief overview of the political and religious situation in Burma would be naive. What You Need to Know About Burma, introduces you to the history of religion in Burma, the rise of Buddhist nationalism and its effects on Burmese Muslims as well as the current state of religious freedom in the country. 

Diversity in Burma

Burmese identity is rooted in diversity. The country, about the size of the Texas, borders no less than 5 countries: Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand.

Over 135 ethnic groups can be found in Burma. The largest officially recognized groups are the Bamar (68%), Shan (9%), Karen (7%), Rakhine (4%), Chinese (3%), Indian (2%), and Mon (2%). (1)

While 88% of the population identify as Buddhist, Burma is religiously diverse and contains practicing Christians (6%), Muslims (4%), Animists (0.8%), and Hindus (0.5%). (2)

Ethnic Groups in Burma

There are more than 135 ethnic groups in Burma. This graph shows the 7 largest.

Religious Groups in Burma

These are the most commonly practiced religions in Burma. People also identify as other religions or not religious.

Source: CIA

Source: Oxford Burma Alliance

History of Religion in Burma

Burma’s strategic location near trading ports and between several countries with distinct cultures, means that it has a rich religious history.

Animism, various forms of spirit worship, was the original religion of the Burmese people (3) until 1057, when King Anawrahta unified the state of Burma and proclaimed Theraveda Buddhism as its religion. (4) The arrival of Islam to the region can be traced back to the 9th century, when Muslim sailors, brought to the region by trade, settled in Burma. (5) Catholic and Protestant missionaries came to Burma several centuries later and after a series of wars, Burma became a British colony. 

 Buddhism is deeply engrained in Burmese culture. All Buddhist Burmese boys must spend at least one week at a monastery as novice monks before they reach adulthood.

Buddhism is deeply engrained in Burmese culture. All Buddhist Burmese boys must spend at least one week at a monastery as novice monks before they reach adulthood.

Burma was eventually incorporated into Britain’s Indian Empire and gained its independence alongside India in 1948. Following independence came a period of political instability, eventually resulting in a military coup in 1962. The country was ruled by a military junta until 2015. The military, however, still controls 25% of parliamentary seats and can reject any proposed constitutional changes. (6)

The Rise of Buddhist Nationalism

The political transition towards a more democratic country, beginning in 2011, intensified clashes and unease between religious and ethnic groups in Burma. During this time of instability, the country saw a rise in Buddhist nationalism. This particular brand of nationalism is best described by the slogan “To be Burmese is to be Buddhist.” (7)

In Burmese culture, religious leaders, especially Buddhist monks, have tremendous societal influence. Burmese monk Ashin Wirathu, who has been called “the Burmese Bin Ladin" has spearheaded the Buddhist nationalist movement. Through sermons, speeches, and social media, Wirathu claims that the country’s Buddhist values and way of life are at stake. Capitalizing on the fear of “Islamization,” he tells Buddhists “if we are weak, our land will become Muslim.” (8) Despite impassioned pleas from the Dalai Lama, himself, Wirathu has continued to justify violence against Muslims. (9)

 
 Credit: Facebook

Credit: Facebook

 

By and large, the government has allowed Wirathu to continue his crusade without significant consequences. Some claim this is because Wirathu’s anti-Muslim platform has significant support among Burmese citizens. (10, 11) Wirathu was recently banned from preaching for one year by Buddhist religious authorities in Burma for using his sermons to incite hatred and create chaos. (12)

Persecution of Muslims

Although there is no official state religion in Burma, the country identifies as a Buddhist nation. The rise of Buddhist nationalism has caused significant deterioration in relations between Buddhists and members of minority religions. To put it bluntly, the Muslims have it worst in modern day Burma.

Conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in Burma dates back to the 19th century, when the British encouraged workers from neighboring Bangladesh and India, many of them Muslims, to come to Burma. (13, 14) After the installment of the military junta, Muslims became a more attractive target for the government. (15)

There are many different groups of Muslims in Burma including, the Chinese-Muslim Panthay, Shan Muslims, Indian Muslims, and Rohingya Muslims. (16)

Rohingya Muslims have undoubtedly suffered the most, with the UN declaring them to be one of the most persecuted groups in the world. (17) In 1982, the military introduced a law that stripped all Rohingya Muslims of their citizenship, despite the fact that their presence in Burma can be traced back to the 15th century. (18) Since the late 1970’s, more than one million Rohingya Muslims have fled the country. Many of them live in squalor in refugee camps that regularly turn away foreign aid from NGOs. (19) Since 2012, more than 120,000 Muslims, mostly Rohingya, have been internally displaced and reside in more than 40 internment camps in Burma. (20) Both the UN and Human Rights Watch have accused the Burmese government of being complicit in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. (21)

 

The State of Religious Freedom in Burma

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has designated Burma as a “country of particular concern” when it comes to religious freedom. The USCIRF claims that "Although Burma has opened dramatically since the last nationwide elections, President Thein Sein’s government continued to restrict basic freedoms–including the right to freedom of religion or belief.” (22)

Burma currently has laws in place that restrict religious conversion, interfaith marriages and family planning, access to education, and the overall religious freedom of religious minorities. (23) Religious minorities also face many obstacles when it comes to building or repairing houses of worship, which is especially concerning given the fact that mosques and churches have been the targets of vandalism and arson for many years. (24)

Nationalist Buddhist sentiment is so strong in the country, that even its recently democratically elected leaders have resisted condemning violence and discrimination against religious minorities for fear of losing popular support. (25) In the last several years, small conflicts in communities between Buddhists and Muslims have escalated into violent clashes and riots throughout the country. Religious minorities are being targeted by the government as well as their fellow citizens. 

While Burma may be on the path towards building a sustainable democracy, the state of religious freedom in Burma is not good.

Sources Cited

  1. http://www.oxfordburmaalliance.org/ethnic-groups.html

  2. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bm.html

  3. http://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Myanmar/sub5_5c/entry-3036.html

  4. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-12992883

  5. http://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/faq/islam-myanmar

  6. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/upload/Myanmar-Religious-Freedom-Lags-2016.pdf

  7. http://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/faq/buddhism-myanmar

  8. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/world/asia/extremism-rises-among-myanmar-buddhists-wary-of-muslim-minority.html

  9. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/world/asia/extremism-rises-among-myanmar-buddhists-wary-of-muslim-minority.html

  10. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-30930997

  11. http://www.dw.com/en/hate-speech-myanmar-monk-banned-from-preaching-by-buddhist-council/a-37905421

  12. http://www.dw.com/en/hate-speech-myanmar-monk-banned-from-preaching-by-buddhist-council/a-37905421

  13. http://studies.aljazeera.net/en/reports/2016/09/muslim-minorities-peril-rise-buddhist-violence-asia-160908090547506.html

  14. http://www.religionandgeopolitics.org/myanmar/myanmar-violence-roots-buddhist-nationalism

  15. http://studies.aljazeera.net/en/reports/2016/09/muslim-minorities-peril-rise-buddhist-violence-asia-160908090547506.html

  16. http://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/faq/islam-myanmar

  17. http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/MM/FlashReport3Feb2017.pdf

  18. http://www.cfr.org/burmamyanmar/rohingya-migrant-crisis/p36651

  19. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/03/fight-survive-rohingya-refugees-bangladesh-170313091106782.html

  20. http://www.cfr.org/burmamyanmar/rohingya-migrant-crisis/p36651

  21. http://www.cfr.org/burmamyanmar/rohingya-migrant-crisis/p36651

  22. http://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/USCIRF_AR_2016_Burma.pdf

  23. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/upload/Myanmar-Religious-Freedom-Lags-2016.pdf

  24. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2016/myanmar

  25. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/upload/Myanmar-Religious-Freedom-Lags-2016.pdf