Monday, July 8, 2013

Religious dispute in Myanmar- The Time Cover Story

Paper No. 5522
Dated 05-July-2013
Guest Column by Dr. Tint Swe

The impact of the 1st July issue of the Time magazine bearing the cover story “The face of Buddhist Terror” was far reaching even before any copy of the publication was sold inside Burma.

No doubt the media is an effective weapon which can either pour water on the fire to put it out or fuel on a burning Burma. While the country is trying to retrieve its old image after a half century of military rule, unexpected events tend to cloud the progress that is being made.

We are referring here to the violence that was seen in northern Arakan or Rakhine State in the month of June 2012 on which the time cover story gives a “coloured version” of the events. The ill-fated series of events was ignited by the report of an Arakanese woman who was gang-raped by local Muslim men on 28-5-2012.

In the history of Burma many individuals strongly stand out for their involvement in movements having a far reaching impact. Some instances that come to my mind are
Pho Hla Gyi who was hanged by British government became hero of the workers’ movement.
Aung Gyaw who was beaten to dead by British police was the 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 was the victim of the Buddhist-Muslim riots of the day but overlooked by the outsiders today.

Minorities are generally discriminated almost everywhere in the world. The Muslim population in Burma (Myanmar) is small in the 90% Buddhist Burma in general and 95% Buddhist Arakan State in particular. At the same time the Buddhists are a minority in two Muslim-dominated Townships, Butheedaung and Maungdaw in Arakan State and this is the place where the violence occurred. One can draw his/her own conclusion on these statistics.

There were mixed responses to the Time magazine cover and the report. Burmese language radios namely BBC, VOA, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) have presented panel discussions and interviews. Burmese print media has also covered this issue extensively. It is Facebook which carries both religious thoughtful comments and disrespectful annotations every minute till this time of writing. It was an avoidable mess and the over enthusiasm shown by some in the west is bewildering.

The newly established Burmese rights groups and activists have made mixed observations. 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. Monk U Wirathu on the cover explained that Hanna Beech has distorted his interview.

Thanks to the military dictatorship, the Burmese people have looked with suspicious eyes on all the events taking place in Burma. There should have been hearty cheers or criticism from the nationalists. But nothing happened. The ‘Trust deficit’ is still high.

In Burma there have been a couple of sectarian riots including two Kala-Bhama (Indian-Burmese) unrest in 1930 and 1938. But since the anti-Chinese riot in 1967 and minor riots that followed since the time of late dictator General Ne Win, it was suspected to have been orchestrated by the junta which wanted to divert 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 being collaborators of the ruling party, USDP. This view should not be ruled out as the next general election due in 2015 is not far.

The big question is whether the monk whose portrait is on Time’s cover, is a hero or a villain. Whether the Time report is balanced or factual is being debated. The majority of Burmese are annoyed of the cover story which says “The face of Buddhist Terror” and it is interpreted as an insult to the religion, Buddhism. To paint the country as suffering from Buddhist terrorism is not only unreal but made to provoke the normally peace loving Buddhists.

Time magazine cannot get away with whatever they want to say - half truths or exaggerated versions!. If this kind of a comment had been made on the Muslims elsewhere,- one could expect an immediate impact. Who cannot forget what happened in Denmark some time ago.

But the Time cover story had its adverse effect elsewhere. The Burmese migrant workers (Buddhists) in Malaysia were the targets of violence. There could be retaliation elsewhere too. The Time story has not helped the Muslims either. It is regrettable that the Burmese Muslims who have been legally and peacefully living with majority Buddhists for centuries are now being exploited.

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

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 a 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 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. Some Monks and their followers feel that Buddhism is being threatened and it is time to defend. They assume that the tolerant and passive nature of Buddhism is being exploited by a few with the power of money. As a result they think the sovereignty as well as the religion is in danger. It is a fact that there were some unacceptable causalities on non-Buddhist population that made the religion of the majority look ugly and the country nasty.

The proposed Race Protection Law will enable a Buddhist woman not 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 and is accepted as “routine”. The Human rights activists do not create any furore. But why?

Burma is in its early stages of transition to democracy and has its teething problems. Condemnation of religion in the name of upholding the rights of minorities alone will not help or get the country move forward. This needs to be understood by the so called well meaning friends from the West.

(Dr. Tint Swe, an ex MP of the National League for Democracy, is the Chairman, Burma Center Delhi (BCD) and can be contacted at