In recent years, the world has witnessed countries that have been plagued by religious tension and sectarian violence, and Myanmar is no exception.
The American weekly news magazine TIME recently portrayed Wirathu, a Myanmar Buddhist monk, as “The Face of Buddhist Terror” in its July 1, 2013 international edition. The story has triggered mixed responses, including condemnation from the Myanmar government.
Online campaigns were launched to denounce the magazine for allegedly portraying Buddhism with terror, which garnered the support of thousands of people, just in a few days of the publication.
The article became so controversial and sensitive that the Myanmar government banned the magazine. Ye Htut, spokesperson for President Thein Sein, announced on June 25 that the magazine “would not be sold and distributed to prevent the recurrence of racial and religious conflict.”
The magazine defended its story and said, “TIME’s international cover story … shows the presence in Myanmar of an extremist movement that associates itself with Buddhism. TIME is pleased by the debate and discussion this important piece has raised.”
While the Myanmar government condemned the article, Wirathu said the magazine is not against Buddhism but him. He accuses the Muslim extremists of attempting to strip him of his monkhood.
Wirathu’s name has been associated with radical ideologies for some time now. Since 2001, he has warned Muslims of taking over Myanmar. He was jailed in 2003 for his radical sermons but released in 2012 as part of a general amnesty.
Wirathu has continued his anti-Muslim rhetoric since his release. He is part of the “969” nationalist movement of monks who warn about minority Muslims threatening racial purity and national security. The campaign encourages Buddhists not to do business with Muslims and only support fellow Buddhist shops.
Wirathu also proposes an inter-religious marriage law which specifies that anyone who marries a Buddhist woman must convert to Buddhism. The draft, if it becomes law, will require any Buddhist woman seeking to marry a Muslim man to first obtain permission from her parents and local officials. Those who fail to comply could face up to 10 years in prison and have their property confiscated.
The government’s position is that it will not take action against Wirathu for his alleged hate speeches toward the Muslim community for the reason that no complaint has been made from any individual or organization to the Sangha Maha Nayaka, an organization responsible for reviewing the speeches or sermons of monks.
In light of this evolving story, what needs to be done in the larger interest of Myanmar people? First of all, it must be understood that Myanmar experienced religious-related violence in 2012 and earlier this year.
The violence between Buddhists and Muslims has led to the death of at least two hundred people, by official account, since violence started in 2012, and has displaced tens of thousands of people from both religious groups.
There needs to be short-term and long-term policies to address the lingering problem between the two communities. The immediate measure should be for the government to contain and control any imminent danger, especially from within radical elements.
This should include taking legal actions on any individual or organization that engages in activities that can incite violence toward other religious groups. The government also needs to put in place a transparent judicial review process by adhering to the principle of equal treatment.
Though freedom of expression should be encouraged, statements hurting the sentiments of other religious groups need to be checked. Similarly, religious freedom needs to be exercised, while simultaneously showing respect for other faiths.
While the short-term strategy should aim to address the pressing needs, the government must also lay out a concrete policy and program to address the legal status of the Rohingya (Bengali) Muslim population. Individuals who are eligible under the 1982 citizenship law must be granted full citizenship rights like any other groups in the country.
For those who are not eligible under the 1982 citizenship law, the government must find other viable alternative solutions. This could be explored either through a bilateral engagement with neighboring Bangladesh, where the Myanmar government says the Bengalis illegally migrated from, or with assistance from the United Nations.
Other remedial policies should include gradual improvement of relations between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists, and also with the people of Myanmar in general. Given the historical uniqueness of the Rohingyas, reconciliation and political integration can be a great challenge.
A reconciliation program will have a chance to succeed when Buddhists and Muslims are willing to compromise on their differences by respecting each other’s identity and culture. More importantly, the Myanmar government and the general public must be ready to embrace the Muslims, especially the Rohingyas, if any genuine reconciliation is to be realized.
A blame game will not solve the lingering problem. Such practice can possibly aggravate the simmering situation. The government must pay serious attention to the crux of the problem and embark on an inclusive reconciliation program.
The international community should extend the necessary support to the Myanmar government to address this delicate issue, but not by pitting one community against another. Failure to address religious and ethnic conflicts in the country can hinder, if not derail, the democratic transition.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National newspaper, based in Abu Dhabi.