In February 2015, I also wrote the following article for London’s Tablet newspaper, giving an overall view of the reasons for the recent religious tensions and violence in the country. As this piece is hiding behind a firewall, I reproduce it in full here.
Among the twenty new cardinals receiving their red hat from Pope Francis on 14 January the one with perhaps the most striking name was Charles Maung Bo, the Archbishop of Yangon. The Catholic Church in Myanmar (previously known as Burma) recently celebrated its 500th anniversary, yet Bo is the first cardinal to be appointed from this south-east Asian country of about 51 million people. He is returning to Myanmar at a moment when religion is playing a defining role in the country’s future, for better, and also, unfortunately, for worse.
Since 2011, under President Thein Sein and a small group of reform-minded ministers, the previously secretive, isolated and repressive military dictatorship has been opening up to the world and moving, haltingly, towards a measure of democracy. Censorship has mostly been lifted and thousands of political prisoners freed. Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace prize winner and the most visible symbol of resistance to the military regime, is now an MP.
Yet as the new Cardinal warned after his elevation, all these gains are now at risk due to the rising tides of religious extremism, sectarian violence and intolerance in the country. Indeed, there is a serious threat of contagion, as the sectarian faultlines that have opened up in Myanmar spread across the region. Ben Rogers of pressure group Christian Solidarity Worldwide, who has worked closely with Cardinal Bo, says that he is “a wonderfully generous, gracious and humble man”, possessed of a “quiet courage”. These qualities, and more, will be needed by all Myanmar’s faith leaders over the next few years if the country is to move forward in peace.
Religion has always played a central role in Myanmar. Faith remains a vital marker whereby the country’s many and diverse ethnic groups define themselves. Buddhism is the predominant religion, particularly among the majority Burman ethnic group. But since the mid-19th century, when the country gradually succumbed to British colonial rule, the Christian churches have had a strong presence, particularly among the minority ethnic peoples on the mountainous peripheries of the country: the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Shan and others. Most of Myanmar’s Catholics are to be found among the Kachin and the Karenni, although Charles Maung Bo himself is a Burman. Baptist missionaries were the most successful, however, led by the American Adoniram Judson. Most Kachin in the far north of the country are still Baptists.
Muslims had been trading and settling along the Burmese littoral for centuries, but colonial rule brought large-scale Muslim immigration from what was then Britain’s Indian empire, of which Burma was a part. Many of them came from Bengal, and settled in Arakan, now Rakhine state. These are the Rohingya. Millions of other Muslims settled in thriving cities such as Rangoon (Yangon) and Mandalay. Their descendants today constitute about 10 per cent of Myanmar’s population.
However, the driving force of all the Burman-dominated governments that have ruled since independence in 1948, especially since the 1962 military coup, has been to try to impose a homogenous Burman-Buddhist rule on the whole country, thereby vanquishing the multi-faith, multi-ethnic society bequeathed to them by the hated colonialists. This is the policy of “Burmanisation” which provoked the civil wars that have characterised Myanmar’s entire post-independence history.
It was the imposition of Buddhism as the country’s official faith, for instance, that helped to provoke conflict between the government and the Kachin. That war started in 1961, and, despite several ceasefires, still continues. Consequently Christianity is closely identified with the long struggle by the Kachin, Chin and others for freedom and self-rule against the Burman state. Catholic priests and Baptist ministers have been at the forefront of resistance to the government’s assault on the ethnic groups’ languages, culture and land.
It was a Catholic priest, Father Thomas Gum Rai Aung, who led the heroic resistance against a proposed Chinese dam project at Myitsone in Kachin state. If this had gone ahead, it would have submerged most of the surrounding area, including his own parish; the Kachin were united against it. I visited Father Thomas at his church overlooking the Irrawaddy River, where he kept a lonely vigil against the dam’s construction. Despite countless demands and blandishments to leave, Father Thomas refused to budge. He had been born in these hills, he told me, and would only leave “when the water level is coming up to my nose. At which point I will make a bamboo raft and float down the river to the mountains where I came from.” Remarkably, the government eventually suspended building in September 2011.
Throughout the hill areas, the Churches long ago replaced the despised and poverty-stricken Burman state as the primary providers of social care and support to people. In Kachin state, for instance, the Baptists run most of the drug rehabilitation centres. However, with greater freedoms, local church leaders are looking to provide more than just a safety net. Last year I visited Wai Maw village, just outside Myitkyina, and met the head of the Baptists there. His ambition is to re-open their school; all the mission schools were closed by the government in 1964, as part of Burmanisation. Technically, the school will still be illegal, but a few other such Baptist schools have opened recently and so far the government has ignored them.
However, as relations between the Burman Buddhists and the Churches in the hill areas have relaxed somewhat, so another front has opened up in Myanmar’s religious wars, pitching the Buddhists against the Muslim minority.
Antagonisms between the two date back to the colonial era, when the Burmans felt swamped by a large influx of Indian immigrants, many of them Muslim and in the pay of the colonial overlords. Islam has thus been resented by Burmans largely because of its intimate association with foreign subjugation.
This long history of hatred was reignited by the violence in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, in 2012. The alleged rape of a Buddhist woman sparked off an orgy of murder and ethnic cleansing. I visited Sittwe after the event, and there was little left of the Muslim community. Many mosques and houses had been gutted, while the Rohingya themselves had been herded into makeshift tents on the fringes of the city, where most remain.
This sparked off waves of anti-Muslim violence across the country. In the last few years over 200 Muslims have been killed and more than 140,000 made homeless. Some of this violence was spontaneous. But more of it has been planned and co-ordinated between Buddhist chauvinist monks and the more recidivist elements within the government, for political gain.
A Muslim friend, who I shall call Harry, told me what happened in Mandalay during the first days of July 2014. In the weeks before, there had been a surge of hate speech among the Buddhist communities, not only against Muslims but also against Ms Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party. On 1st July, the rabble-rousing leader of anti-Muslim monks, Wirathu, posted a report on his Facebook page that a Muslim man had raped a Buddhist woman near Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw. The accused man had a tea-shop in central Mandalay. Soon a crowd of Buddhist Burmans surrounded the tea-shop shouting threats. According to Harry, watching; “About 30 or 40 men and women turned up on motorbikes. They were outsiders, no-one had seen them befoeeere. They were shouting ‘Kill all Muslims’ and ‘This is our land, not your land’. All night groups of people were going around Mandalay shouting and screaming this. At 5am, a Muslim man was attacked and killed by a mob on his way to prayers.”ff
The thugs were most likely from the Swan Arr Shi, literally meaning “the people with strength”, the regime’s bully-boys. They are led by Aung Thaung, henchman of former dictator General Than Shwe. The government, rightly, is afraid that it will lose this year’s election to Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD, so it is provoking fear of Muslims amongst Burman voters, posing as the only party that will defend Burmans against Muslim culture; Ms Suu Kyi, they argue, is siding with Muslims in her defence of human rights.
It is a desperate gambit by desperate people, and the Muslims are the scapegoats. Wirathu, who founded the anti-Muslim ‘969’ movement, is given money to spread his poison around the country, while the government takes its cues from him in parliament, sponsoring, for instance, a bill against inter-faith marriage. Wirathu has allied himself with an equally virulent anti-Muslim group in Sri Lanka, the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force). In Sri Lanka too, such sentiment has been exploited for political gain.
Until now, Myanmar’s Muslims have been remarkably peaceful. Despite provocation, including plenty of insulting anti-Muslim cartoons and jokes in the Buddhist-owned press, they do not gun down their fellow-citizens in the street, nor do they head off to Syria to become jihadists. The fear, though, as the new Cardinal warns, is that eventually they will retaliate violently against the Buddhist onslaught, perhaps connecting up with foreign extremist groups to do so. That would be tragedy for Myanmar, and the reason why it is so vital for every faith leader in Myanmar, including those many monks who despise Wirathu’s bullying ways, to stand against this politically inspired sectarianism.”