RISE IN BUDDHIST ACTIVIST GROUPS IN MYANMAR
by Alan Nichols
Veteran Australia development worker Jill Jameson, just back from Myanmar, has seen a huge growth in activist Buddhist groups teaching and practising peacemaking within a very complex environment.
Jill Jameson in the garden at her home in Warrandyte on February 13
Since 2007 Jill Jameson has been regularly visiting inside Myanmar at the invitation of local Buddhist groups, particularly those within the International Engaged Buddhist network. On this last visit, January 30 to February 10, she saw many changes in the context of the transition to democracy following the election win by the National League for Democracy. And some things haven’t changed, liked being followed by security!
Fifty people – mostly monks – attended one of her workshops. It was introduced by Ashin Wirathu, an internationally known radical monk who was called ‘the Buddhist Bin Laden’ two years ago by Time Magazine, talked about Buddhists ‘nurturing the people’. Ma Ba Tha, an extremist nationalist Buddhist organisation promoting the idea that ‘to be a true Burmese you must protect religion and race’ (which is the basis of the new marriage laws), is now open to participating in workshops on peacemaking.
Drawing on her experience over the past two weeks, Jill Jameson said: ‘Monks have focussed on teaching children in the Dhamma schools the dos and don’ts of behaviour, but education level has been low.’ Now things are changing. In her recent workshop at Ma Ba Tha, Jill encouraged monks and others in small groups to look into the needs in their communities and to explore ways they might respond to such needs. Energy which went into promoting ‘hate-speech’– especially of Muslims – will hopefully now be directed more towards community needs.’
In her workshop, she spoke of Buddhists in Shan State who were engaging with the local community. They now have 300 community banks in monasteries which indirectly are a way of promoting peacemaking, as well as supporting the poorest.
She says there are now 500,000 monks in Burma, in a population of 53 million. The extremists are a very small proportion and are not generally liked, but have been very active in promoting hatred of Muslims, especially the Rohingyas. International media have focussed on this, and on the smuggling and deprivation of liberty of thousands on Rohingyas trying to get to Malaysia, but actually the racism against other ethnic minorities happens in many parts of the country.
By contrast, Buddhist groups and other CSOs (community service organisations) are also addressing complex issues like citizenship and are promoting workshops on peacemaking, including those Jill Jameson conducts. Some are anxious that Myanmar will turn out like Cambodia – many foreign NGOs moving in to change the culture and promote Western ideas. One CSO worker said: ‘NGOs also tend to have a short term approach on popular issues like human rights, but Myanmar is very complex, with 60 years of military leadership. Some NGOs come in, do research, then go away but never come back to actually run programs or share their results.’
Quoting a local activist, she said: ‘A lot of people are holding their breath at the moment.’ In the meantime, they are going to workshops, learning from small groups, and focussing on the wider needs of the whole community. So, simultaneous with the emerging of parliamentary democracy, other transformations are occurring across the country.
[See later in this blog a history of persecution of Rohingyas]
PARLIAMENT SETS DATE FOR PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
On February 9 the Parliament of Myanmar set the date for the election of a President – March 17. The date is later than expected, possibly because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is still negotiating with the military about either now or at an agreed date changing the constitution to permit her to be President.
Some members of the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s party, have been speaking openly about changing the constitution, but there is no indication yet that the military bloc in Parliament would agree. Meantime, elections and appointments have been made of Speakers in both Houses of Parliament, and key leadership positions in the States, which include the major ethnic groups.
President Thein Sein’s term expires on March 30. The lower house, the upper house and the military bloc each puts forward one candidate. From those three, a President is elected and two Vice-Presidents.
There have been many speculations about who Suu Kyi might nominate as President, assuming the constitution is not changed. One person frequently suggested is U Tin Oo, ‘senior leader and patron’ of the National League for Democracy. In the long period Suu Kyi was herself under house arrest, he was the spokesman for the NLD. Others speculated about are Htin Kyaw, an executive with Suu Kyi’s Foundation named after her mother. He is son-in-law of U Lwin, one of the founders of the NLD. Another person speculated on is Daw Suu’s closest aide Tin Mar Aung. She was Suu Kyi’s chief of staff until last week, and a constant companion since she was released from house arrest in 2010. A medical doctor by profession, she worked for UNICEF before joining the NLD leadership. She is of Rakhine nationality.
U Tin Oo, on left, with Aung San Suu Kyi and Denise and Alan Nichols, 1998, at her home in University Avenue, Yangon, in a brief period when house arrest was lifted and foreigners were permitted to visit.
(Source: Myanmar Times, 9 February 2016, and Bangkok Post February 7, 2016)
LONG HISTORY OF CONFLICT BETWEEN BUDDHISTS AND MUSLIMS
More than 110,000 refugees from Myanmar, mostly from Arakan State, are in camps in Thailand. There has been such persecution that some United Nations officials are calling it a genocide. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticised in the lead-up to the national elections last November for not speaking out about the issue.
But there has been a long history. Muslims have lived in Myanmar/Burma for a thousand years, but they have always been seen as foreigners, displaced from Bangladesh.
In the British period, the population of Muslims in Burma was around 500,000. They were then seen as ‘Indian’. After World War I there was an upsurge of anti-Indian sentiment, which came out during port strikes. During Japanese occupation in World War II at least 40,000 Rohingyas fled to Chittagong (now in Bangladesh) after suffering repeated massacres.
In 1997 racial tension erupted between Buddhists and Muslims during the renovation of a Buddha statue in Mandalay. In 2001 monks in Taungoo distributed anti-Muslim pamphlets, provoked by the destruction by the Taliban in Afghanistan of Buddha statues. Mosques were destroyed by the junta, and many Muslims moved away.
Muslims have been denied citizenship, recently losing even their identity cards which were the gateway to employment.
(Source: Wikipedia, 12 February 2016)