As Buddhist-Muslim violence ignites, a monk’s message reflects the pain on both sides and his journey demonstrates efforts to heal the rifts and staunch the spread of unrest.
This week, a Buddhist monk I work with in Burma/Myanmar sent me a message from the city of Meiktila, saying he was shocked by what he was seeing there. He had traveled to Meiktila in the aftermath of the clashes that broke out between Buddhists and Muslims that left more than 40 dead, a mosque burnt to the ground, and countless Muslim homes and businesses destroyed. The violence prompted authorities to declare a state of emergency.
In the face of the suffering, this monk and other religious leaders had traveled to Meiktila to meet with family members of those killed and look for ways to help defuse the tensions. Embers still burned, and charred bodies still lay in the streets, according to news reports. The monk told me he was ashamed that people could so brutally hurt each other, and that he broke down when he heard the first-hand stories from victims. “I cannot believe that people can do to each other like this,” he told me, pleading that we and others in the international community keep supporting peacebuilding in the country.
Last September, I blogged about the violence that broke out between Rohinghya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists in western Burma (while the military government changed the name of the country to Myanmar in 1989, the U.S. government still refers to it by its previous name, Burma.). The strife left scores dead and more than 100,000 displaced after they fled the unrest. As I said at the time, the conflict was at root about political and economic issues but acquaintances in Burma were concerned the religious dynamic would drive the conflict’s spread and escalation. A notable rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric, periodic violence and organized actions such as the rise of the so-called 969 Movement led by Buddhist monks who claim to be protecting Buddhism from Islam show that their fears were well-placed. Recent clashes prior to this week’s violence included an attack on a Muslim school in Yangon in February.
When I traveled to Mon and Karen States the same month, I heard concerns from local Muslim communities and others about increasing anti-Muslim activity and sentiment. But any lingering doubts about the conflict’s existence were dashed this week, as tensions and violence spread like a virus throughout the country, infecting regions where communities had previously coexisted peacefully. Local communities sometimes pointed to instigators from outside the community as leading the violence.
The media reports have noted the participation of religious leaders, particularly some Buddhist monks, in instigating this violence directly through their participation in the violent mobs or indirectly through incendiary preaching. Such exclusionary rhetoric has taken root in the country’s current environment of rapid political and social change wrought by the recent reform process. New media freedoms are bringing torrents of information and misinformation, exacerbating uncertainty among the public and inflaming long-standing ambivalence toward Burma’s Muslim communities, who are in the minority.
But there is a different narrative coming out of Burma too -- stories that reveal a capacity and willingness among many people there to face and meet incredible challenges.
Last month, USIP and local partners brought together twelve influential religious leaders from throughout the country for five days to discuss strategies for inter-religious peacebuilding. We studied examples of effective peace programs led by religious leaders in the Philippines and Sri Lanka that sought to advance inter-communal reconciliation and collaboration, to push forward peace processes, and to promote rule of law, justice and security.
Over five days we dug deep, discussing the need for greater and deeper inter-faith dialogue and engagement in Burma, particularly as a means to address the escalating tensions between Buddhists and Muslims.
This week, many of these same religious leaders, as well as others, have been responding directly to the outbreak of violence. In addition to their sojourn to Meiktila, they have responded to rising tensions in their own communities to prevent violence from breaking out.
They have engaged leaders who have been preaching messages inciting bias and violence, seeking to convince them of the harm caused by the rhetoric and to invite them into inter-faith initiatives. The peacebuilders have been raising money to support victims of the violence in Meiktila. A group of monks from Yangon, the former capital, donated humanitarian relief supplies directly to victims in an effort to demonstrate solidarity and cross-sectarian unity while a coalition of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian groups, led by religious leaders, met in the city to pray for an end to the violence.
In Mon State, Buddhist and Muslim leaders met to dispel misinformation and rumors that were sparking tensions between their groups and might have led to violence. In Paung Hte and Pyay, there are reports that local residents created interfaith groups to monitor the situation and relay the correct information to help administrative and security personnel respond. And in Meiktila, both during and immediately after the mob violence, a monk provided refuge in his monastery for Muslims fleeing unrest. Many prominent Buddhist monks have been driven into action out of compassion, fearing that this violence could derail the country’s reforms, and that these incidents could tarnish the image of Buddhism worldwide.
To be sure, these efforts have perhaps been too few and far between to stop cold the spread of Buddhist/Muslim violence. Even today, there are reports of new incidents.
But these efforts to prevent local outbreaks of conflict, to counter inflammatory rhetoric and violence with messages of peace, to dispel misinformation and rumor, and to advance Buddhist/Muslim reconciliation illustrate existing avenues and indigenous approaches that might work, especially if they’re combined with broader measures to address political, legal, and rule-of-law issues, such as citizenship status and effective police responsiveness.
There is a lot at stake in how the government of Burma, local organizations and actors, and the international community handle these communal conflicts. In Burma’s history, when violent conflict has broken out, the military has taken it as cause to step in and seize control. Many fear that these clashes are being fed and fueled by those who are interested in accomplishing exactly that.
But there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Those interested in peace can support and encourage the work that is already being done by courageous peacebuilders within Burma who understand very well just how high are the stakes.
Next week, our partners in Burma will meet with religious leaders in our network to reflect on what they’ve learned about how best to respond in the aftermath of these tragic clashes. The group also will talk about how to ensure such episodes of violence don’t recur – how to refute rumors and misinformation, how to call people back to religious values of compassion for the other, and how to engage the police effectively to respond to violence, or the rumor of violence.
Analyzing accounts of effective response, of bold peacebuilding across lines of religious difference, can help determine how best to keep those more positive narratives unfolding.
What approaches do you think would work in short-, medium- and long-term to defuse religious tensions in a transitional country like Burma? Submit your comments below.
Susan Hayward is a senior program officer in USIP’s Center of Innovation for Religion and Peacemaking.