RANGOON — Leaders from a handful of faiths in Burma came together in Rangoon to discuss “the religious roots of social harmony” on Sunday, less than a week after violence between Buddhists and Muslims reportedly once again wracked western Arakan State.
About 100 people, including Buddhist monks, and Muslim and Christian leaders, were present for the interfaith dialogue over the weekend, an event that also saw attendance by U Wirathu, leader of the controversial “969 movement” that critics say has been responsible for disseminating hate speech against Burma’s Muslim minority.
At a time of rising tensions between majority Buddhists and Muslims in the country, most visibly—and recently—in Arakan State, event organizer Danielle Goldberg said the goal was to promote “mechanisms for preventing violence and helping people to understand each other.”
Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, at which Goldberg serves as program coordinator for peace-building and rights, co-organized the dialogue with the local civil society group Religions for Peace.
“We have been engaged with different religious leaders here since we started working last year,” Goldberg said, adding that the work included outreach to Burma’s religious leaders and community organizations.
The extent of anti-Muslim sentiment in the country was revealed in June 2012, when local Arakanese Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas attacked each other in Arakan State. The communal violence has since spread to several other states and divisions in Burma, where Muslims have made up the majority of victims in violent, sometimes deadly clashes.
Last week, reports emerged of what appeared to be the latest incident in troubled Arakan State. The Arakan Project, a Thailand-based Rohingya rights group, said initial reports from sources on the ground in the region said anywhere from 10 to 60 Rohingya Muslims were killed after a police officer went missing in Maungdaw Township, where access is heavily restricted.
The government confirmed the missing law enforcement official, but has denied any knowledge of violence against Rohingya in Maungdaw last week.
The dialogue also came less than a week after a conference of monks agreed on a proposal to statutorily restrict interfaith marriage between Buddhist women and men of other faiths. The proposal, first put forward in June 2013, is opposed by human rights defenders and the chairwoman of Burma’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
But the proposal may gain traction in Parliament, where it looks likely to be submitted as a bill for consideration. In July of last year, a petition in favor of the restrictions garnered more than 2.5 million signatures, according to its supporters, indicating a degree of popular support for the idea.
“I know this is very sensitive,” Goldberg said on Sunday. “Each day there are challenges for interreligious understanding and harmony.”
Wirathu, who attended Sunday’s dialogue at the invitation of organizers, has been accused of stoking anti-Muslim sentiment by propagating the ideology of his “969 movement,” an ultranationalist credo that calls on Burma’s Buddhists to boycott Muslim-owned business. In speeches since his rise to national prominence, Wirathu has referred to Muslims as “mad dogs” and blamed an attack at a monastery in Mandalay as the work of “Islamic terrorists.”
About 90 percent of Burma’s population of some 60 million people is Buddhist, and Muslims are estimated to comprise about 5 percent.
Ashin Nyanissara, one of Burma’s most respected monks who is better known as Sitagu Sayadaw, spoke out against violence at the dialogue.
“We should join each other to declare that we should abstain from conflict and violence. We strongly condemn any form of violence. All political leaders and religious leaders should join in this [condemnation].”
A Muslim leader, Al Haj Aye Lwin, tried to counter sentiment—espoused by 969 adherents—that Muslims pose a threat to Burma’s religious identity.
“Myanmar has managed to forge unity in multiplicity in this pluralistic society since the time of Myanmar kingdoms. Islam reached Myanmar more than 1,000 years ago. We are part of the society. We are proud to be dutiful citizens of this beloved land of ours, joining hands with others, brothers and sisters from different people.”
Speaking to reporters during a discussion break, Wirathu said religious tensions would not be eased by “high level” discussions like the one that took place on Sunday, and called for more dialogue “on the ground.” Wirathu added that he would help by educating Arakanese Buddhists on the rule of law in the hopes of avoiding future violent confrontation.
Several foreign embassies also sent representatives to participate in Sunday’s discussion. The US Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Virginia E. Murray, said solutions to the country’s religious divisions would ultimately need to come from within.
“It’s not for the international community, it’s not for outsiders to say what happens next, but what we can do is offer that support and help you ask the questions that you yourselves perhaps need to answer,” she said.