Burma’s identity crisis

The forced closure last week of three temporary Muslim prayer sites in Yangon is just the latest in a litany of abuses inflicted on Burma’s religious minorities by ultra-nationalist Buddhists. Add this to the decades-long persecution by the Burma Army of non-Burman ethnic minorities, many of whom are also non-Buddhists, and you get a nationwide cocktail of religious intolerance and conflict.

Muslims, Christians, and indeed Buddhists, who oppose the extremists are increasingly living in fear, in a country where ethno-religious nationalism has led to hate speech, intolerance, discrimination, persecution, crimes against humanity and, in one particularly egregious case, genocide.

That is the picture presented by CSW’s new report, Burma’s Identity Crisis: How ethno-religious nationalism has led to religious intolerance, crimes against humanity and genocide, published today. The report is the result of over three years’ work, involving first-hand front-line research, supplemented by information provided by CSW’s contacts in Burma and by other organisations working on these issues. It tells the human stories, it analyses the legislative framework, it assesses the international community’s response and it provides a call for action.

It tells the stories of people like 16 year-old Khalida, a Rohingya Muslim whom I met in a refugee camp on the Bangladesh-Burma border. She lay paralysed on the floor of her bamboo hut, having been shot multiple times by Burma Army soldiers as they attacked her village. She told me that over 300 villagers were killed, including her father, two sisters and one brother. Her 18 year-old brother Mohamed Rafiq, who had escaped before the army came, returned to find her among the corpses, and with the help of others brought her to Bangladesh. “Thank you for caring enough to come all the way from your country to visit us,” Khalida said with a gentle smile as she lifted her head when I left. “Please come and see us again.”

It tells the stories, too, of Christian students like those at Kalaymyo Technological University, who simply wanted a meeting place for fellowship and prayer. They told me when I met them in Kalaymyo that although the township authorities gave them permission to build a chapel, villagers objected. “The villagers told us that a Buddhist village does not need a church,” they said. “But in fact it is not a church, it is simply a hostel for students and a small prayer room. And there are 200 Christian students living in the village. But now we feel threatened. The villagers often come and attack us by throwing stones.”

It tells of churches destroyed in Kachin State and crosses torn down in Chin State, of pastors assaulted and women raped. It tells of military propaganda that warns of three dangers to the country, ‘ABC’: HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B and Christianity. It tells of villages that have declared themselves ‘Muslim-free zones’, of communities where Buddhists and Muslims lived as neighbours in harmony for decades but which are now torn apart.

“Religious freedom is a foundational human right but we do not enjoy it, because of hate speech,” a Muslim in Kalay told me three years ago. “The root cause is the lack of education, and the system is being destroyed by the military. If the government can improve education, hate speech will decline.”

The impetus for the report came from the fact that over recent years, the world’s focus on Burma has, very understandably, been almost exclusively on the crisis facing the Rohingyas in Rakhine State. While the Rohingyas have suffered the worst forms of inhumanity, cruelty and crimes against humanity, they are by no means alone in Burma. Indeed, the Burman Buddhist nationalists have targeted other Muslims and some Christians throughout the country, and the Burma Army has intensified its assault against the predominantly Christian Kachin in northern Burma. This report is an attempt to weave together the different aspects of the nationwide situation and show that although the abuses may vary in severity and scale, they are part of a challenge that has dogged Burma for decades: the question of identity.

Competing visions

As the report title suggests, Burma currently faces an identity crisis of two competing visions.

Will it pursue the vision expressed by Pope Francis on his visit to the country in 2017, when he said that: “The arduous process of peacebuilding and national reconciliation can only advance through a commitment to justice and respect for human rights. The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law, and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group – none excluded – to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good.”

That is a vision which Aung San Suu Kyi herself echoed, in her speech welcoming the Pope, saying: “Our nation is a rich tapestry of different peoples, languages and religions, woven on a backdrop of vast natural potential. It is the aim of our Government to bring out the beauty of our diversity and to make it our strength, by protecting rights, fostering tolerance, ensuring security for all.”

It is a vision encapsulated in the visit by Asia Alin Sayadaw to Muslims last week during Ramadan. Asia Alin Sayadaw is one of a few prominent Buddhist monks courageously working to promote inter-faith harmony and defend minorities. Such Buddhists are Burma’s hope, and deserve our support.

Or will Burma pursue the vision articulated by another of its most prominent Buddhist monks, Sitagu Sayadaw, who has said that “Buddhists are hosts and Muslims are guests. The guests must obey the hosts”? More recently he went further, telling the army in a sermon broadcast live on national television, that it is not necessarily sinful for Buddhists to kill non-Buddhists.

Does Burma want to recognize itself as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society in which every person of every religion and ethnicity has an equal stake and equal rights? Or will it be a Burman, Buddhist society in which non-Burmans and non-Buddhists are, at best, second class citizens and at worst displaced, tortured, jailed, raped and killed? Will it be a society which sees people of different races and religions as human beings, or one in which they are regarded as dangers?

A burned out madrasa near Naypyidaw

What needs to be done?

Top of the list of recommendations to both the government of Burma and the international community is that the perpetrators of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide be held accountable. Only then can Burma begin the long, hard, painstaking work of reconciliation and peace. Very carefully targeted sanctions – not against the people, but against the military generals and their assets – should be introduced by the international community. Discriminatory laws must be reviewed, revised and where possible repealed, reform of the judiciary and the education system are vital, and action to tackle hate speech is overdue.

The Rabat Plan of Action on tackling hate speech offers a way forward, together with other international initiatives such as the Beirut Declaration on ‘Faith for Rights’. International mechanisms such as the UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief, the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, the EU Special Envoy on the issue and others should be engaged. International support for efforts to strengthen capacity within the country, especially among religious leaders and civil society, for countering intolerance should increase.

When you read this report, you will realise, if you did not know before, that Burma’s crisis is not just about the Rohingyas. It is about every person in every part of Burma. And it is about ensuring that, whatever their ethnicity or religion, their basic human rights are defended and their identity recognized. If the vision of a “rich tapestry” of unity in diversity is to be realized, urgent action is needed to restore rights, end discrimination and counter hatred and intolerance. Only then can Burma resolve its identity crisis.

By Benedict Rogers, CSW’s East Asia Team Leader and author of ‘Burma’s Identity Crisis’

Click here to read CSW’s new report – ‘Burma’s Identity Crisis: How ethno-religious nationalism has led to religious intolerance, crimes against humanity and genocide.’