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In Myanmar, a movement for Muslim and Buddhist tolerance

As Myanmar's head of state visits the US, the first such trip in more than 45 years, religious and ethnic violence are being slowly addressed back home.

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Myanmar President Thein Sein speaks during a town hall event at the Voice of America in Washington Sunday. The topic on the agenda today when President Sein meets with President Obama at the White House, a landmark event for Myanmar’s new government.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters

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Days after communal violence rocked central Myanmar in late March, leaving more than 40 people dead and raising tensions in the mostly Buddhist country, a group of Muslims and a group of Buddhists decided enough was enough. 

Thet Swe Win, a Buddhist, and his friend Minn Paing Soe, a Muslim, gathered with some of their colleagues from Yangon’s active civil society scene to see if they could work together on lowering tensions.

It wasn't an easy conversation, even for these socially conscious, longtime friends. But then, nothing has been simple about the emergence of anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar following the end of decades of autocratic rule.

“We had a very long discussion that day and we got into a lot of arguments,” says Thet Swe Win, a construction manager by day, and the director of the Myanmar Youth Empowerment Program in the evenings. Instead of focusing on blame and disagreements over religion, the activists decided to look for a solution.

Officially, the population of Myanmar is nearly 90 percent Buddhist, about 5 percent Christian, and about 4 percent Muslim, with Hindus making up most of the rest. Many think the actual Muslim population is higher, but not reported correctly due to tensions.

A complicated mix of colonial-era resentments and a rapidly changing society contributed to the deadly March violence in the city of Meiktila, which allegedly involved some hard-line Buddhist monks. The attacks there put Muslims throughout the country on edge.

“Most [Muslims] in Myanmar are very scared and are very worried – even me,” says Minn Paing Soe, who grew up Muslim in Yangon, has Buddhist friends and is active in both Muslim and Buddhist civil society groups. 

Indeed, the religious tensions are casting a shadow over the otherwise celebrated political opening since the country’s former military junta gave way to a nominally civilian-led government in 2011. They are also a concern to foreign governments and companies now considering moving into the country. The topic is on the agenda today when President Thein Sein meets with President Obama at the White House, a landmark event for Myanmar’s new government. 

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Pray for Myanmar

The activists found common ground in their desire for Buddhists and Muslims to live together in peace. Thus began the Pray for Myanmar campaign, one small-scale effort to mitigate religious tensions.

The group kicked off the campaign in late March with an awareness event at the local YMCA in Yangon that brought together Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and Hindu leaders and activists.

In April, volunteers fanned out across Yangon to distribute thousands of t-shirts and blue stickers that say, roughly translated, "I will not let religious or ethnic violence begin with me.”

Security was a concern, and one passerby, apparently posing as a reporter, got the group’s phone number and then called Thet Swe Win, spewing profanity and threatening to beat the volunteers, he said. Some others threw the stickers back at the volunteers.

But most people, says Thet Swe Win, who like most Buddhist men spent time serving as a novice monk at a local monastery when he was a boy, were welcoming of the message. 

Buddhists and Muslims have lived side by side in peace in many parts of the country for generations. Minn Paing Soe, who is 25 and is currently recording a documentary on religious tolerance, notes that monks helped save many Muslims in the recent violence in Meitkila.

Pledge to protect religious minorities

The government’s line is that “religious intolerance or discrimination on grounds of religion is nonexistent in the Union of Myanmar throughout its long history,” according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website.

And Thein Sein’s government pledged to protect religious minorities, but authorities took a few days to stop the Meiktila violence. And some Myanmar people blame the government for actually stoking – or at least tacitly supporting – religious tensions, speculating that harder-line elements in the government, unhappy with the country’s move toward democratization, see such tension as a way to justify continued military influence.

Minn Paing Soe notes that his national identification card categorizes him as an ethnic Indian, even though his family has lived in Myanmar for generations. Under the constitution “I never can be president in our country,” he notes, even though he is fiercely proud of Myanmar, eats traditional Myanmar food, wears traditional Myanmar clothing and can’t even write in any Indian languages. “In your country, Obama’s father is Muslim, and he can be president,” he says as he sips tea at a donut shop in downtown Yangon. “If Obama is in our country, he cannot be president … because his father is Muslim.”

And then there is the “969” campaign. The widespread campaign draws its name from a numerological arrangement of Buddhism’s core teachings and is pushed under the guise of a nationalistic pride movement. In practice, however, that becomes a segregation movement encouraging Buddhists to only patronize Buddhist-owned shops marked by 969 stickers.

And worse than the 969 sticker effort, says Minn Paing Soe, is the anti-Muslim hate speech that is now circulating on the Internet, following the relaxation of government censorship and media control in the past year.

Ethnic-religious tensions

Another distinct problem is the status of the Rohingya, a displaced population – mostly Muslim – that is situated in the western state of Rakhine along the border with Bangladesh.

Under a 1982 law, the government does not recognize Rohingya as citizens, instead saying that they are “Bengalis” from neighboring Bangladesh. The Rohingya people have accused the government of land grabs, violence and property destruction. Human Rights Watch has labeled the treatment “ethnic cleansing.”

Following separate deadly attacks on the group last year, where hundreds were killed in clashes, a commission of government appointees that included Muslims – but no Rohingya – recently pushed the government to do more to address the Rohingya's plight. But its proposals were controversial. They focused largely on security, and highlighted the Rohingya’s high birthrate as part of the problem, playing into anti-Muslim stereotypes, and proposed expanding family planning in the group. 

Though groups like the 969 movement, which some say the government tacitly supports, are more organized and aggressive, Thet Swe Win says he thinks the peace campaign is slowly making progress.

The various civil society groups involved in the campaign sent the government a joint letter last week condemning religious violence in Myanmar – as well as abroad, such as happened recently when Muslim extremists tried to bomb the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta.

And on the street some of the responses to the campaign have been heartening, he said. “One guy, he saw our stickers, he stopped and he hugged one of my friends.”

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