Saturday, June 29, 2013

Religious exploration in Burma

ကေန႔ျမန္မာျပည္မွာ ျဖစ္ေနတာေတြကို ႏိုင္ငံျခားသားေတြက ျမင္ၾကတာကတမ်ိဳး၊ ႏိုင္ငံတကာစံေတြနဲ႔ၾကည့္ၾကတဲ့ ျမန္မာေတြကတမ်ိဳး၊ ဒါေၾကာင့္ အေမေမြးတဲ့မ်က္စိတစံုက ဒီလိုျမင္ပါတယ္လို႔ သူမ်ားေတြကိုသိေစေအာင္ ေရးတာပါ။

Time is a time bomb. Its effects are far reaching before any copy of publication was sold inside Burma. No doubt media is an effective weapon which can pour water on the fire and fuel burning Burma. While the country is trying to retrieve its old stock after a half century of failure, all unexpected and calculated risk taking events are taking place more or less every week if not every day. Freedom in politics and freedom in media are encouraging though all are far from satisfaction.

When it comes to religion, the world witnessed the violence in northern Arakan or Rakhine State in June 2012. The ill-fated series of events was ignited by the report on an Arakanese woman who was gang-raped by local Muslim men on 28-5-2012. In the history of Burma one single person could be named for a historic event. Pho Hla Gyi who was hanged by British government became hero of the peasant movement. Aung Gyaw who was beaten to dead by British police was hero of the student movement. Phone Maw who was shot dead by the Burmese military regime became the hero of the pro-democracy movement. Ma Thida Htwe is the victim of the Buddhist-Muslim riots of the day but overlooked by the outsiders today.

Yes minorities are generally discriminated everywhere in the world. The Muslim population is small in the 90% Buddhist Burma in general and 95% Buddhist Arakan State in particular. At the same time the Buddhist is minority in two Muslim-dominated Townships, Butheedaung and Maungdaw in Arakan State where the violence began.

There are widespread responses to the Time magazine cover as well as its report. Burmese language radios namely BBC, VOA, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) have presented panel discussions and interviews. Burmese printed media also published extensively. It is Facebook which carries both religious thoughtful comments and disrespectful annotations every minute till this time of writing. It is a mess.

The newly established Burmese rights groups and activists give mixed observations of I agree and I do not. When the government banned the issue of Time magazine Burmese media reacted that they are worried of media freedom but none of the chief editors and editors have given full support to Hannah Beech’s story. The cover monk, U Wirathu explained that she distorted his interview.

Thanks to the military dictatorship, Burmese people have adopted suspicious eyes on all the events. Whatever the government is doing whether it maybe with good intention and with good in essence the people always think of why and what is behind. Trust deficit is still high.

In Burma there have been a couple of sectarian riots including two Kala-Bhama (Indian-Burmese) unrests in 1930 and 1938. But since the anti-Chinese riot in 1967 and smaller some others happened since the time of late dictator General Ne Win were suspected of man-made unrests orchestrated by the juntas which wanted to deviate people’s attention away from the real political crisis.

Likewise in this religion-oriented series, those who disagree with the monk’s call are suspected of collaborators of the ruling party, USDP. This view should not be ruled out as the next general election due in 2015 is not far. In the meantime the daily newspaper, the Pyidaungsu which is of the Union Solidarity and Development party (USDP) reported the former Prime Minister and intelligent chief Khin Nyunt’s news. It is the work of military intelligence which crated all covert operations throughout the times of BSPP, SLORC and SPDC which denote all military regimes since 1962 to 2010.

The big question among population is whether the monk whose portrait is on Time’s cover is a hero or a villain. Also if Time report is balanced or factual is being debated. Majority of Burmese are annoyed of the cover story which says “The face of Buddhist Terror” and it is interpreted as insult against the religion, Buddhism. But there are a few others who do not disagree with Time article and they are seen as the people who wear imported spectacles and do not see things with natural eyes.

Vengeance can be seen in Malaysia among the Burmese migrant workers where the victims were Buddhists. It is regrettable that the Burmese Muslims who have been legally and peacefully living with majority Buddhists for centuries are forced to be quiet. The story will not stop. Efforts made and to be made by Buddhist side will not end. The latest example is on the license for a new national mobile phone network awarded to the Ooredoo of Qatar and the Facebook users express their anger.

On 27-6-2013, 1500 Buddhist monks led by the most senior and highly respected ones gathered in the old Capital and condemned the Time magazine and called for strong support for a draft bill which is called Race Protection Law. When the local government proposed to restrict two-child for Bangali women in Arakan region it was opposed by Burmese human rights and women rights activists. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said a law must be equal among others.

According to 2008 constitution which is under tremendous pressure to be amended, there are 16 legislative assemblies which can pass laws. In such a diverse nation genuine federal structure has been proposed. The nature, the peoples, the religions, and the needs are different from region to region. So one single law can or cannot be applied throughout the entire country.

The world’s response to the Arakan episode was unprecedented. The citizenship law is urged to be amended by the foreigners. Many so-religious monks and their followers feel that Buddhism is being threatened and invaded at the corners and it is time to defend. They assume that tolerant and passive nature of Buddhism is exploited by a few others with the power of money. As the result they think the sovereignty as well as the religion is in danger. Yes there are unacceptable causalities on non-Buddhist population and that made the religion ugly and the country nasty.

The proposed Race Protection Law will disallow a Buddhist woman to be converted to a different religion if she wants to marry. Many activists pointed out that it is a kind of discrimination. In practice in Burma the Buddhist bride or bridegroom does not ask his or her spouse to become a Buddhist but the opposite is true. Unfortunately there is no rights activist blame at non-Buddhist side. The Buddhist monks clarify that the proposal is to defend not to violate the freedom of religion of the Buddhist women.

The North America and the European countries are well-equipped for all eventualities while the struggling Burma is not prepared yet. This is Burma and not all the so-called universal or global yardstick is fit all. Neither suicide bomber nor drone attack has a place in Burma. Once the virtual threat is proved unreal Burmese Buddhist activism will restrain itself.

Tint Swe
Chairman, Burma Center Delhi (BCD)
New Delhi