Myanmar: Religious tensions will reduce when inclusion starts from the top

Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.Photo: Claude Truong-Ngoc/Wikimedia Commons

By Sarah Caroline Bell

ASEAN countries have noticed a spike in religiously motivated attacks of late. The United Nations has specifically requested that Myanmar address its instances of religiously-motivated violence – but violence at the hands of whom?

Buddhists make up approximately 80% of the nation, but the incidents of violence in question is fueled by a small clique their most extremist members. This must be a curious notion for a religion traditionally known for its teachings of non-violence. The acts of violence in question is directed towards minority religions active in the country, with the most anger being directed towards those who identify as Muslim.

Just last week, Buddhist-Burmese extremists groups attacked two mosques – one attack in protest of the mosque’s construction, the other simply an attack on the presence of Muslims in the area.

Interestingly, it has been reported that more than 200 Buddhists participated in the planned attack, yet not a single arrest was made. What does that say when the majority is able to attack the minority with absolute impunity? Basically, it implies that the action is endorsed.

Strategic exclusion of Muslims

The National League for Democracy (NLD), the current co-ruling party alongside the military generals, has been internationally critiqued for its treatment and exclusion of Muslims from both being represented in and participating in the political system. In the 2015 elections held in November, there was not one candidate identifying as Muslim out of the NLD’s 1,151 candidates.

Further, it has been widely reported that the party had strategically cleared out all Muslim candidates and not only that, they had also actively rejected all new applications by Muslim candidates on the basis of their religion. “You could say that where Islam is concerned, everyone – the monks and the government – is united. Now the elections are unequivocally Islamic-free,” stated National League for Democracy member, Win Htein. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, another senior party member confirmed this to be the case.

Aung San Suu Kyi first claimed to enter politics to work towards democratisation. But is this still the case in 2016? As a former recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, it is expected that Aung San Suu Kyi would at least condemn the attacks on racial minorities, but she has not. Once widely applauded for her liberal views, it appears Aung San Suu Kyi is not as liberal as she has been celebrated to be. It appears she only acts in the interests of those she considers to be ‘her people’.

The injustices suffered by Muslims in Myanmar are numerous. Late last year, it was reported that Muslims were unable to vote in the most recent elections, a result of having their IDs nullified due to the belief they were illegal immigrants. Did Aung San Suu Kyi speak up at the injustice of that situation? No.

In Myanmar, life is not easy for those who do not publicly identify as Buddhist. A typical pathway to success in the country is through obtaining a public government position or through obtaining a position in the army. But for non-Buddhists, it is an almost impossible task. As gatekeepers, it seems the Buddhist majority is interested in keeping Muslims out.

Has Aung San Suu Kyi spoken up about this injustice even once? No.

The importance of religious tolerance

ASEAN countries are by and large multi-ethnic communities; there is not one country that consists of one religion or people as a majority. For stability, all religious groups should be tolerant of one another. In 2015, the Conference on Freedom of Belief in Southeast Asia reported that “in a religiously and ethnically diverse region like ASEAN, there is a close connection between religious freedom and peace and security.”

This is particularly true in the case of Myanmar’s Muslim community; they have no peace and very little security simply because of the fact that they are persecuted for their choice of belief. Further, Muslims live in fear knowing that any acts of violence against them will go unreported and unpunished.

Is the current spike in religious violence in Myanmar a reflection of the fact that Myanmar, from the government down to the citizen on the street, has zero respect for religious minorities to the point that they are excluded from a party that gained a super-majority? Perhaps political parties need to reflect the religious makeup of the country themselves by including members of minority religions in their ranks? In a real democracy, minorities require representation.

At the very least, the government of Myanmar needs to take a stand and arrest and appropriately punish those who attack anyone, regardless of their religious affiliation. Members of one religion should not have impunity for their acts simply because their faith aligns with that of the ruling party. If the government doesn’t respect the rights of all of their citizens, then who will?