Any resolution to the religious violence threatening Myanmar’s nascent reforms must come from within the country, according to experts who notice some Buddhist monks already confronting anti-Muslim rhetoric spread by extremist groups.
Although foreign governments and NGOs—as well as the broader international community—want an end to the problem, they can only play a supporting role in addressing the tensions without having their efforts backfire, the experts said this week at a Washington conference on ethnic and religious tolerance in Myanmar.
They warned that the communal tensions between the country’s majority Buddhists and minority Muslims will have to be closely watched ahead of the release of results from a national census fraught with ethnic controversy due in July and political parties gearing up for elections next year.
Ethnic violence flared in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2012 as the country emerged from decades under military rule, with deadly clashes spreading to central Myanmar last year.
Buddhist monks were accused of spreading hate speech that fueled the violence, as an extremist “969 movement” aimed at “safeguarding Buddhism” emerged, using DVDs of sermons and Facebook to spread anti-Islamic messages.
Amid virulent rumors that Muslim men have been paid to marry Buddhist women and dilute the country’s Buddhist population, lawmakers in parliament are currently considering legislation proposed by monks that would restrict interfaith marriages and limit the number of children Muslims may have.
Challenging messages of hate
But some monks have emerged to play a role in challenging anti-Islamic messages, and they will be key to efforts to halt future violence, said Susan Hayward, a program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace who has been working with interfaith groups in Myanmar.
“The most important voices should come from within the sangha,” or the Buddhist monastic community, as well as from civil society groups within Myanmar, she said at the Stimson Center conference in Washington.
“It needs to be led by the local community, with the international community quietly supporting from behind.”
Monks in Yangon, Bago, and Mandalay have been using Buddhist doctrine to challenge pro-969 movement monks and question their anti-Islamic messages within the tradition of monastic debate, Hayward said.
Others have been working with interfaith groups to mediate tensions between local Buddhist and Muslim communities, and have joined in campaigns against hate speech.
During riots in central Myanmar last year, some Buddhist monks reportedly opened their monasteries to shelter Muslims and staved off mobs coming to attack them.
Some local activists and civil society groups have also played a role in preventing clashes, with interfaith groups forming committees to monitor and respond quickly to signs of potential violence in their communities.
“When they hear of something, they get in the van and go,” Hayward said.
But in a climate where many Buddhists feel their religious traditions are under threat by foreign forces, monks or activists who speak out against religious intolerance risk danger if they speak out too far, or if they are seen as being backed by the international community, she said.
“It’s very dicey for the international community to be seen to be supporting these things too enthusiastically,” she said.
In western Myanmar, Rakhines, who are predominantly Buddhist and an ethnic minority in Myanmar, have lashed out at foreign aid groups they perceive as favoring ethnic minority Muslim Rohingyas—considered outsiders in Myanmar—over their own community.
Late last month, Buddhist mobs attacked the offices of international humanitarian groups in the state capital Sittwe, chasing aid workers from the state and causing the biggest disruption of aid in the area in years.
International rights groups have accused Myanmar’s leaders of having a weak response to sectarian clashes over the past two years, urging President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out against anti-Muslim messages.
But to many in Myanmar, the criticism “looks like a threat,” said Priscilla Clapp, former charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar and current adviser to the Asia Society and U.S. Institute of Peace.
International rights groups’ use of terms such as “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing” to raise alarm about anti-Muslim violence often have the opposite effect from their intended end, and rights groups could do better to find ways to engage in dialogue instead, she said.
“We as an international community need to rethink our approach to this,” she said.
“It’s going to take a lot of quiet, patient work.”
Tensions could heighten over the next year as campaigns ramp up ahead of hotly contested national elections in late 2015, if political parties take up anti-Islamic messages in their campaigns, Clapp warned.
Some political groups have already begun promoting “exclusionary” messages about protecting Myanmar’s national culture and religion, she said.
The problem could be exacerbated by the upcoming results of national census conducted earlier this month, which will be the first full count of Myanmar’s population in 30 years and will produce data about ethnic demographics.
Preliminary finding from the census are expected in July 2014, with final results in early 2015.
The census “could show that there are more Muslims in the country than people knew about,” Hayward said.
Some civil society groups have also led efforts to start anti-hate speech campaigns, she said, saying that more efforts like those would be needed in the coming months.
“In the short term, in the next two years, we need Buddhist monks, Muslim imams, and a lot of other civil society and influential celebrities speaking out against hate speech and promoting coexistence as a way to ensure resilience, in the midst of the census and the campaign season,” she said.
Strengthening Myanmar’s police could also help improve responses to emerging tensions, said Win Min, a research fellow at the Centre for Economic and Social Development of the Myanmar Development Resource Institute.
Setting up information centers to stop inflammatory rumors from spreading could also help violence from getting out of hand, he said.
But in the longer term, Myanmar will have to address violence that has deep roots in Myanmar’s history, dating back to ethnically divisive policies under British colonial rule, he said.
“Many ethnic and religious groups consider other groups a threat to their existence,” Win Min said.
“All of our political systems have had that intolerance,” he said, noting that even under the democratic government in power in Myanmar’s early years of post-colonial independence, leaders practiced an “exclusion policy” that sidelined some ethnic groups.
Myanmar will need to improve its education system, which deteriorated under decades of military rule, and strengthen the rule of law in order to address the deeper causes in the long run, he said.