Sunday, 26 January 2020

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Home > Ed/Op > Opinion > Reflecting on Myanmar’s religious strifes on Good Friday

Reflecting on Myanmar’s religious strifes on Good Friday

Although there are reasons to be hopeful about Myanmar now, events of the past ten days have cast a dark shadow over the country. The violence against Muslims in Meiktila, which then spread to Naypyitaw, Bago and threatened Yangon, is so serious it has drawn the attention of the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. If it spreads and is not stopped, it could result in the Good Friday and Easter Sunday story in reverse – flickers of hope and light snuffed out by brutal violence and terror.

A madrassa near Naypyitaw [Photo: Benedict Rogers]
A madrassa near Naypyitaw [Photo: Benedict Rogers]
Last Monday, I visited a village little more than two miles from Naypyitaw, where a community of 260 Muslims had lived peacefully alongside Buddhists for 200 years. They told me they had never had a problem, and had good relations with their Buddhist neighbors, until March 22. That night, a huge mob of Buddhists came to attack the mosque and the madrassa alongside it. The Muslim people fled in time, and no one was killed or injured, but the mosque was damaged and desecrated, and the madrassa completely burned out. It was a smouldering scene of fear and misery. Only 15 Muslims remained in the village, having sent women and children away to another location. Even they said they would only stay if the security forces protected them.

It does not have to be this way. There is another vision for Myanmar. The night before visiting Naypyitaw was what Christians call Palm Sunday. That night, in a ceremony filled with beauty, love, peace and hope, a remarkable microcosm of a harmonious multi-religious multi-racial society illustrated how the world could, and should, be. I came as a foreigner, from Britain, to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Bo Aung Kyaw Street, Yangon, to be baptized, confirmed and received into the Roman Catholic Church, by Archbishop Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, with Lord Alton, a British parliamentarian, as my sponsor. The friends who joined me to celebrate the occasion were a wonderful mixture of Burmese Buddhists, a Karen and a Chin Baptist, two or three foreigners who grew up Catholic but have been away from the Church, and some foreigners who are non-religious, secular, agnostic or atheist. All gathered to celebrate a momentous occasion and did so with uplifting generosity of spirit.

The story of my spiritual journey is long and beautiful but is for another time. The important point here and now is what that Palm Sunday ceremony illustrated. It showed that it is possible for people of different religious beliefs or of no belief not simply to tolerate other beliefs, or even to respect other beliefs, but to come together to celebrate another religion’s customs, practices, ceremonies and beliefs.

My friends came not simply as observers – they entered into the spirit of the occasion. They did not change their beliefs, and I would not have expected them to, but they joined me in celebration. That Palm Sunday ceremony represented two things: first, how to live together with our differences in a multi-religious, multi-racial society, and second, the importance of freedom of religion. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects the freedom to choose, to practice, to share and to change our beliefs. I was exercising my freedom of religion in all those aspects, because even though I was already a Christian, I was changing from the Protestant tradition to Catholicism. I was doing so publicly, in an act that involved sharing and putting into practice my beliefs. And I was doing so in front of friends who do not share those beliefs, but who could respect and celebrate my freedom to pursue my beliefs. As the waters of baptism poured over me, the cathedral bells rang out with a clear, unmistakeable message: “Love. Peace. Hope.”

Benedict Rogers, Lord Alton and others at a ceremony at Saint Mary's Cathedral, Yangon in March, 2013.
Benedict Rogers, Lord Alton and others at a ceremony at Saint Mary's Cathedral, Yangon in March, 2013.
Earlier that day, I visited the Shwedagon Pagoda. In doing so, I was paying my respect to the beliefs of the majority of people of Myanmar. And I was struck by how many similarities there are between Buddhism and Catholicism. Similarities in tradition and practice – the monkhood, chanting, incense, bells, beautiful architecture and decoration in places of worship. Similarities too in belief – common ground, whether we call it ‘Metta’ or whether we say ‘Love your neighbor as yourself, and love your enemy’.

Last year, in Indonesia, I learned of the case of a young man, Alexander Aan, jailed not because of his religious beliefs, but because he has no religion – he is an atheist. I went to visit him in prison. When I told him I worked for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, he was surprised, and asked if I knew he was an atheist. I told him I did know, but I had come because I believe freedom of religion or belief, Article 18 of the UDHR, must include the freedom not to believe. I told him I wanted to help defend his freedom. We had an amazing conversation, in which I told him about the works of Christopher Hitchens, a prominent atheist writer whose views on religion I completely disagree with but whose intellect, writing and integrity I respect. He told me that although he was an atheist, he had read the New Testament and agreed with much of Christ’s teachings. It was an extraordinary scene—a Christian recommending an atheist writer, an atheist extolling the virtues of the New Testament. The freedom to share ideas, in an atmosphere of mutual respect, is the greatest freedom and one to cherish and guard carefully.

It may be too much to ask right now, for Buddhists and Muslims to join in celebrating each other, so soon after such carnage and hatred. The work of rebuilding communities, restoring trust, reconciling with each other will be a long, hard road with many bumps along the way. No one should be naive about that. But if we do not at least make a start, Myanmar will forever be a nation built on festering fear and simmering hatred, ready to boil over at the slightest spark. The immediate priority must of course be for the police to restore, and uphold, the rule of law. If people cannot sleep in their beds at night without fear, they will never be able to move towards a society where they can celebrate diversity.

But at the same time, if steps are not taken soon by all in positions of authority and influence, at a national, regional, district and township level, to begin to change attitudes and to foster not just tolerance but respect, leading to harmony, then no amount of law and order will ultimately protect people from further violence. It must be done painstakingly and through example at a grassroots level. It will require both wisdom and courage from political and religious leaders.

In all the major religions, there are differences and there is common ground. We must celebrate both. We should not be under any illusion that we’re all exactly the same. Manifestly, that is not the case. A temple, a mosque and a church are different places. Each one claims truth, and it is each individual’s responsibility to search for the truth, and to explore in an atmosphere of mutual respect what the truth means. But in recognizing our differences, we should also recognize what we have in common. Whether it is ‘Metta’ or ‘Karuna’ for Buddhists, ‘Salaam’ for Muslims, ‘Shalom’ for Jews, ‘Ahimsa’ for Hindus, or ‘Love’ for Christians, we should all seek to live our lives according to these precepts.

As Mahatma Gandhi said: “You must be the change you want to see in the world”.
Benedict-Rogers-2013Benedict Rogers is the East Asia team leader of international human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide. As a journalist, he has written widely on Myanmar, including several books, such as "Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads" and "A Land Without Evil Stopping the Genocide of Burma's Karen People".
The Kachin’s last stand
Since October this year, Burma has been in a state of civil war, with fighting between Burmese military and armed ethnic rebels. The ruling junta started a crackdown on these armed groups.

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