Myanmar: Defeating the Preachers of Hate
Each time I have visited Rangoon in the past twelve months, I have seen and experienced the significant political changes taking place here. It is clear that there is increasing space for freedom of expression, the media and civil society. Events that would have been inconceivable just a year ago are now possible. On my most recent visit, I attended Zarganar’s extraordinary show in the People’s Square on Revolution Day. The previous night, I stood on a platform in front of 150 people – Burmese activists within the country, Burmese who had lived in exile for many years, long-term foreign activists – to introduce a British Parliamentarian, who gave a speech about freedom, democracy and human rights. Such changes are to be welcomed and encouraged, and should provide a basis on which to build.
However, although there are reasons to be hopeful about Burma now, events of recent months have cast a dark shadow over the country. The crisis in Rakhine State, the conflict in Kachin State and the Lepedaung copper mine issue have revealed deep tensions in Burmese society. And the violence against Muslims in Meiktila, which then spread to Naypyidaw, Bago and threatened Rangoon, is so serious it has drawn the attention of the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. There is a risk that the flickers of hope and light we are seeing could be snuffed out by chaos, religious and sectarian hatred, brutal violence and terror.
Three days after it was attacked, I visited a village little more than two miles from Naypyidaw, where a community of 260 Muslims had lived peacefully alongside Buddhists for 200 years. They told me they had never had a problem, and had good relations with their Buddhist neighbours, until 22 March. That night, a huge mob of Buddhists came to attack the mosque and the madrassa alongside it. The Muslim people fled in time, and no one was killed or injured, but the mosque was damaged and desecrated, and the madrassa completely burned out. It was a smouldering scene of fear and misery. Only 15 Muslims remained in the village, having sent women and children away to another location. Even they said they would only stay if the security forces protected them.
It does not have to be this way. There is another vision for Burma. The night before visiting Naypyidaw was what Christians call Palm Sunday. That night, in a ceremony filled with beauty, love, peace and hope, a remarkable microcosm of a harmonious multi-religious multi-racial society illustrated how the world could, and should, be. I came as a foreigner, from Britain, to St Mary’s Cathedral in Bo Aung Kyaw Street, Rangoon, to be baptised, confirmed and received into the Roman Catholic Church, by Archbishop Charles Bo, Archbishop of Rangoon, with Lord Alton, a British Parliamentarian, as my sponsor. The friends who joined me to celebrate the occasion were a wonderful mixture of Burmese Buddhists, a Karen and a Chin Baptist, two or three foreigners who grew up Catholic but have been away from the Church, and some foreigners who are non-religious, secular, agnostic or atheist. All gathered to celebrate a momentous occasion and did so with uplifting generosity of spirit.
The story of my spiritual journey is long and beautiful but is for another time. The important point here and now is what that Palm Sunday ceremony illustrated. It showed that it is possible for people of different religious beliefs or of no belief not simply to tolerate other beliefs, or even to respect other beliefs, but to come together to celebrate another religion’s customs, practices, ceremonies and beliefs. My friends came not simply as observers – they entered into the spirit of the occasion. They did not change their beliefs, and I would not have expected them to, but they joined me in celebration.
That Palm Sunday ceremony represented two things: first, how to live together with our differences in a multi-religious, multi-racial society, and second, the importance of freedom of religion. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects the freedom to choose, to practice, to share and to change our beliefs. I was exercising my freedom of religion in all those aspects, because even though I was already a Christian, I was changing from the Protestant tradition to Catholicism. I was doing so publicly, in an act that involved sharing and putting into practice my beliefs. And I was doing so in front of friends who do not share those beliefs, but who could respect and celebrate my freedom to pursue my beliefs. As the waters of baptism poured over me, the Cathedral bells rang out with a clear, unmistakeable message: “Love. Peace. Hope.”
Earlier that day, I visited the Shwe Dagon. In doing so, I was paying my respect to the beliefs of the majority of people of Burma. And I was struck by how many similarities there are between Buddhism and Catholicism. Similarities in tradition and practice – the monkhood, chanting, incense, candles, bells, beautiful architecture and decoration in places of worship. Similarities too in belief – common ground, whether we call it ‘Metta’ or whether we say ‘Love your neighbour as yourself, and love your enemy’.
Last year, in Indonesia, I learned of the case of a young man, Alexander Aan, jailed not because of his religious beliefs, but because he has no religion – he is an atheist. I went to visit him in prison. When I told him I worked for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, he was surprised, and asked if I knew he was an atheist. I told him I did know, but I had come because I believe freedom of religion or belief, Article 18 of the UDHR, must include the freedom not to believe. I told him I wanted to help defend his freedom. We had an amazing conversation, in which I told him about the works of Christopher Hitchens, a prominent atheist writer whose views on religion I completely disagree with but whose intellect, writing and integrity I respect. He told me that although he was an atheist, he had read the New Testament and agreed with much of Christ’s teachings. It was an extraordinary scene – a Christian recommending an atheist writer, an atheist extolling the virtues of the New Testament. The freedom to share ideas, in an atmosphere of mutual respect, is the greatest freedom and one to cherish and guard carefully.
What was so special about my meeting with Alexander Aan was that I was taken to his jail by two Muslims. When we left, I asked them what they thought. One of them said: “Now we understand that it is possible to defend another person’s freedom of conscience, religion or belief, without denying your own beliefs. Before we knew that intellectually and theoretically, but now we know it in reality. We are Muslims, you are Christian, Alex is atheist. We can defend each other.”
Alex’s is not the only case of religious intolerance in Indonesia. Churches have been forced to close and Christians have been attacked, by an extremist Islamist mob that is threatening Indonesia’s pluralism. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community is perhaps the most persecuted. Violent attacks against this group, whose beliefs are considered heretical by many conservative Muslims, have increased significantly. Last year I met victims of one of the worst outbreaks of violence, an attack on Ahmadis in Cikeusik on Feb. 6, 2011, which left three people dead.
One man described how he was stripped naked and beaten severely and a machete was held at his throat. He was dragged through the village and dumped in a truck like a corpse. Another man fled into a fast-flowing river, pursued by attackers throwing rocks and shouting “kill, kill, kill.” He hid in a bush, dripping wet and extremely cold, for four hours. A third suffered a broken jaw, while a fourth, pursued by men armed with sickles, machetes and spears, was detained by the police for three days, treated as a suspect not a victim. Of the 1,500-strong mob that attacked 21 Ahmadis, only 12 people were arrested and prosecuted, according to The New York Times. Their sentences were between three and six months.
As I sat in a Jakarta apartment with the victims of the Cikeusik attack, I tried to offer them some hope. I told them that I would advocate for them, try to be a voice, tell the world. We formed a special bond. One of them said: “If you speak for us, we will pray for you, that you will be an effective voice.” I replied: “If you pray for me to be an effective voice, I will pray for you, that you will be able to live and practise your faith in freedom and peace with dignity.”
In Burma, we are seeing something similar to the situation in Indonesia, but in reverse. In Indonesia, it is a small but vocal and violent minority of extremist Islamists causing conflict and threatening peace. In Burma, Muslims are the victims, suffering at the hands of a small but vocal and violent group of militant Buddhist neo-Nazi thugs. The name of the ideology may be different; the identity of the religion may not be the same; but the spirit is identical: a spirit of hatred, intolerance and inhumanity. And as in Indonesia, it seems that the perpetrators of hatred are able to cause terror with impunity.
To return to my Palm Sunday story – it may be too much to ask right now, for Buddhists and Muslims to join in celebrating each other, so soon after such carnage and hatred. The work of rebuilding communities, restoring trust, reconciling with each other will be a long, hard road with many bumps along the way. No one should be naive about that. But if we do not at least make a start, Burma will forever be a nation built on festering fear and simmering hatred, ready to boil over at the slightest spark. The immediate priority must of course be for the police to restore, and uphold, the rule of law. If people cannot sleep in their beds at night without fear, they will never be able to move towards a society where they can celebrate diversity. But at the same time, if steps are not taken soon, by all in positions of authority and influence, at a national, regional, district and township level, to begin to change attitudes and to foster not just tolerance but respect, leading to harmony, then no amount of law and order will ultimately protect people from further violence. It must be done painstakingly, through example, at a grassroots level. It will require both wisdom and courage from political and religious leaders.
In all the major religions, there are differences and there is common ground. We must celebrate both. We should not be under any illusion that we’re all exactly the same. Manifestly, that is not the case. A temple, a mosque and a church are different places. Each one claims truth, and it is each individual’s responsibility to search for the truth, and to explore in an atmosphere of mutual respect what the truth means. But in recognising our differences, we should also recognise what we have in common. Whether it is ‘Metta’ or ‘Karuna’ for Buddhists, ‘Salaam’ for Muslims, ‘Shalom’ for Jews, ‘Ahimsa’ for Hindus, or ‘Love’ for Christians, we should all seek to live our lives according to these precepts. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world”.
There are, however, still signs of hope, people in Burma who say no to sectarian hatred. I visited one family in a part of Rangoon, and was impressed to see when I left at 11pm that the men of the neighbourhood were sitting out all night, on guard, to protect the area. The men were drawn from all religious backgrounds – in this instance Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus – working together to defend each other. I asked how long they expected to have to do this. “We don’t know, but we will do this for as long as necessary”. That is the spirit the people of Burma should turn to, to defeat the preachers of hatred.
Myanmar version of this article will be carried by Mawkun No.5.
Benedict Rogers is the East Asia Team Leader at the international human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide. He specializes in Burma, Indonesia and North Korea. He has written three books on Burma, including Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant. His latest book is Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads, which was published last year.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 13 May 2013.
Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Myanmar: Defeating the Preachers of Hate, is included. Thank you.
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