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As Temperatures Rise, so do Religious Tensions

By Burma Partnership  •  May 3, 2016

13063223_1229802143730602_7431748223013740437_oThe ugly head of religious extremism has reared again as a number of incidents involving nationalistic and extremist figures spreading hateful and destructive messages have presented a huge challenge to the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led Government just one month into its term in office.

On 17 April, 2016, ultranationalist Buddhist monks threatened Muslim vendors at Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon to stop selling their goods. They seized their wares without compensation and physically assaulted them. This was not denied by U Thu Seikkta of the Patriotic Monks Union (Rangoon) who implausibly defended their actions by stating, “No one could have done anything if they had bombed the pagoda while wearing their burqas, in which case they would not have been able to be identified.” The impunity of using violence while acting as vigilantes is a particularly worrying trend that could give carte blanche for further and more extreme acts of violence.

On 28 April, 2016, a crowd of ultranationalist monks and members of the nationalist youth Myanmar National Network that promote anti-Muslim sentiment gathered at the US Embassy in Rangoon. They were protesting the use of the word ‘Rohingya’ in a US Embassy statement expressing condolences regarding a recent incident where over 20 Rohingya drowned off the Arakan coast when their boat capsized. The Muslim Rohingya have for decades faced state-led restrictions and persecution and since two major bouts of violence in Arakan State in 2012, they have largely been interned in camps, with thousands undertaking a perilous journey to escape to Malaysia or other countries in Southeast Asia. The term ‘Rohingya’ is hotly disputed, none more so than by extremist organizations such as those who organized the US Embassy protest. Their slogans and statements effectively denied the existence of such a group of people called ‘the Rohingya’ and proclaimed that they are illegal Bengalis from Bangladesh. These are the same organizations that stirred religious violence between 2012 and 2015 and are behind the mass spreading of hate speech, whether through social media or on the ground dissemination of materials. The Muslim Rohingya are used by such organizations as an example of an ‘Islamic takeover’ of Burma and they justify their lobbying to deny the Rohingya’s basic rights based on the need to protect ‘race and religion.’

Religious tensions are not exclusive to Rangoon and Arakan State. In Karen State, a Buddhist monk has been sewing discord among Christian and Muslim communities by building stupas on the grounds of churches and near a mosque, defying a request from both the Karen State Government and the Karen State Sangha (monastic order) to halt construction of stupas.

Yet despite the inflaming actions of extremist organizations and certain factions of the monkhood, rights-based activists in Rangoon have been opposing this spread of hate speech. After the threats and harassment of Muslim vendors in Shwedagon Pagoda, an online petition addressed to Rangoon’s Chief Minister was started, demanding the authorities “to take effective action, since this incident could lead to religious disputes and have a negative impact on [Burma’s] democratic transition and on interfaith harmony in the country.” A 3-day conference of interfaith leaders held in Rangoon between 26-28 April, 2016, also called for dialogue and an end to hate speech. Speaking at the conference, Aung Naing Win of the Metta Setwaing Organization stated, “We want to work with law enforcement to take action against those who use hate speech, and we want to empower our community through education to positively engage for peace.”

Meanwhile on 25 April, 2016, around 25 activists opposing hate speech and religious extremism conducted a short demonstration shouting slogans such as “we will never accept discrimination, and we will keep fighting against it.”  Yet in a sad state of affairs these activists felt the need to cover their faces to avoid reprisals. Unfortunately it was not enough to avoid police charges that will now be levelled at them by police. On 29 April, 2016, UK-based Burma solidarity group, Burma Campaign-UK, called for the “unconditional and immediate” release of three other interfaith activists, still in prison on trumped-up charges. Their continued incarceration shows how vulnerable those who demonstrate and advocate for religious harmony and oppose discrimination and extremism are. Those demonstrating for religious harmony face charges and are in jail, while also fearing for their lives is a sad indictment of the priorities of the authorities.

Given the rise in incidents that are exacerbating religious tension and spreading hate speech, the NLD-led Government is presented with an opportunity to show its support to those that promote peace rather than hate. It must release the three interfaith activists, as it did with the release of political prisoners in this past month, and show its commitment to act against those that are fanning the flames of religious hate and violence. The international and diplomatic community in Rangoon must also show its commitment to the protection of human rights defenders and interfaith activists by also calling for the release of those in prison for their peace building activities. They must also offer early and effective responses and assistance to human rights crises and emergencies to those that may face recriminations, both from the police and from extremist groups. Burma faces a long road ahead in maintaining religious harmony but by committing to the rule of law and implementing policies aimed at building peaceful co-existence and pluralism rather than separation and nationalism, the diversity of Burma can become a strength rather than a problem.

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