Voices of peace amidst violence in Burma

“We need peace! We want peace!” reads this message created by the Interfaith Peace Network, which was shared on social media networks to counter the outpouring of hatred online.

Photographs show fires burning in western Burma, billows of black-and-grey smoke rising into the air. Following the rape and murder of a young Buddhist Rakhine girl — allegedly by three Muslim Rohingyas — and the lynching of 10 people (nine of them Muslims) by the Rakhine, violent clashes have erupted between the two groups in Rakhine State.

The violence has unleashed torrents of emotional responses from the Burmese community. While the Rakhine are officially recognized as one of Burma’s over 130 ethnic and sub-ethnic minorities, the Rohingya are not, and are instead seen as illegal aliens. When the BBC published a map of Burma identifying the Rohingya as the major ethnic minority living in west Burma, they were flooded with complaints from Burmese; there were even calls for a boycott. Often reported to be one of the most persecuted groups in Asia, the stateless Rohingya straddle the Bangladesh-Burma border, with each side insisting that the minority group belongs to the other. Rohingya who have citizenship still face some travel restrictions within Burma and have to seek permission from the authorities to get married.

Many Burmese are taking to social media to express their feelings, surprising other Internet users with their vehemence. On Twitter and Facebook, comments are often seen branding all Rohingya as “terrorists.” Articles written with perceived pro-Rohingya leanings are flooded with comments criticizing or insulting the media organization and the journalist (as can be seen in comments left on Francis Wade’s articles on the Al Jazeera website and Asian Correspondent). Many accuse foreign media of skewed reporting and lies, insisting that the Rohingya are the aggressors in this situation and should not be pitied. Others demand that the Rohingya get out of Burma, saying they entered the country “like stray dogs.” In fact, some insist on calling the Rohingya “Bengalis” instead, saying that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Similarly, some Rohingya and Muslims have retaliated by calling the Rakhine “racists,” “oppressors” and “torturers,” accusing the Burmese community of aggression and genocide. Both sides do not hesitate to stoop to personal attacks and insults, eager to pin all the blame on the other. Photographs and videos are shared on social networks, but without the presence of independent observers, it is incredibly difficult to verify most of the information that gets posted. An article from the Associated Press claims that both ethnic groups have suffered more or less equal damage.

The Interfaith Peace Network

While the two clashing groups are split down communal and ethnic lines, they are also split down religious lines, with the Rohingya being largely Muslim while the Rakhine are mainly Buddhist. This has led people — including various media organizations — to characterize the violence as religious clashes.

Religious groups in Burma responded quickly, putting out statements rebutting claims of religious conflict in Burma. The Ministry of Religious Affairs of the Regional Government of Yangon Division, representatives from Organization for Promoting Religious Harmony, Rakhine NGOs and the Islam Body of Religious Affairs issued a joint declaration on June 12 condemning the violent acts perpetrated in Rakhine State, stressing that different religious groups in Burma have “co-existed with each other in harmony and in amicable ways for ages, and are still maintaining this good tradition.”

“Religious and community elders, activists and civil society actors in major cities like Yangon and Mandalay are working together to prevent the conflict from turning into a religious ones,” says Phyo Win Latt, online editor of the Scholar Research and Development Journal (Burma). “But they can’t stop the ongoing hate speech spreading around blogs, Facebook and other online media.”

In New Mandala, Sai Latt highlights some of the hate speech he’d come across online:

Some comments and self-published articles speak of such murderous language as killing all ‘Kalar’ [NOTE: a derogatory term used in the media and online to refer to Muslims]. Some blame dictator Than Shwe for not eradicating all Rohingyas and Muslim populations from the country. Insulting messages using bad languages and sexually sensitive words are quite common. The followings are two examples that are less inappropriate to illustrate the point here.

“Penis Kalar, F!@# Kalar, Dog Kalar, Pig Kalar”

“You Kalar even F!@# your mother and your babies”

Although many Burmese have rejected the notion of the conflict in Rakhine State being a religious one, not everyone is convinced. Bo Min Aung — a Burmese student now living in Bangkok — points out that it is not always easy to differentiate between Rohingya and other Burmese Muslims, and during the heat of the moment assumptions are made that lead to dire consequences. For example, the nine Muslims who were killed by the lynch mob after the rape and murder of the Buddhist Rakhine girl weren’t even Rohingya.

Amidst this turmoil of anger, hatred and vengeance, a group of young Burmese activists of different ethnic groups and faiths have come together in the capital city of Yangon to form a coalition called the Interfaith Peace Network.

Shine, a Burmese Muslim member of the Interfaith Peace Network, agrees with Bo Min Aung, saying that there has been less and less distinction between the violent members of the Rohingya and all Muslims: “First the government refers to the aggressors as the Rohingya. Then they refer to them as the Bengali. Then they refer to them as Muslims.” He also says that the fear of anti-Muslim sentiment has also spread to Yangon, with some Muslim families closing their shops and staying home to avoid becoming targeted.

In response to the vitriol expressed online, the Interfaith Peace Network has begun sharing messages of harmony and tolerance on their social networks, calling for people to calm down and begin working for peace in Burma.

“We need peace! We want peace!” proclaims one image being shared on Facebook.

The Interfaith Peace Network intends to carry out activities to grow their campaign over the coming weeks, distributing flyers and DVDs of a documentary on peace-building. They’ve held an interfaith prayer meeting, encouraging Burmese people of different religions to unite under a common cause, and plan to go “peace caroling” every weekend — singing songs about peace in both Burmese and English in public venues like gardens and parks.

“We want to show the people that all religions teach for peace and that no one’s religion wants war and conflict,” says Shine.

Bringing rationality back to the table

The discourse surrounding the Rakhine-Rohingya conflict in western Burma is often haphazard and incoherent, leaping between various disparate issues such as ethnicity, ancestry, religion, racism, abuse, migration and citizenship rights.

“After living under an oppressive and xenophobic regime for over five decades, the Burmese people sometimes find it difficult to think rationally about certain issues,” says Phyo Win Latt. “Burma as a whole is a very closed and backward country as far as norms, values and education are concerned. So I assume these parts also play a major role in waging hate campaigns either online or on the streets.”

In finding a resolution to this problem, he feels that independent investigations need to be carried out so that the Burmese people will be able to base their arguments on established facts.

“Both sides are playing against each other with half-truths,” he says. “A thorough investigation of the whole matter by a special commission composed by international representatives and experts including ASEAN, U.N., E.U., U.S. is needed, and the findings and results must be distributed in a transparent manner. Both sides of the conflict must accept the ‘truth’ and stop spreading lies and wrong information.”

In Irrawaddy, former political activist Saw Kapi writes about “the almost complete absence of ethnic history in public school curricula” in Burma. Urging the government to adopt education reform that will be able to build social capital, he writes:

As a result, the majority Burman [Bamar] population has little or no idea about the country’s ethnic diversity, let alone the respect and appreciation for their languages and cultures. The only opportunity they have to learn about ethnic people is through the state media’s portrayal of ethnic nationalities as insurgents and separatists whose ultimate intent is to destroy and disintegrate the Union.

While the violence in Rakhine State may wind down, the problem will never go away unless conversations in Burma can move away from emotive and aggressive language and address issues of racism, prejudice and citizenship rights. As Saw Kapi says, education reform will play a major role, but engaged citizens such as Phyo Win Latt and the Interfaith Peace Network can also lead the way by encouraging and fostering civil discussion amongst their own communities and in wider Burmese society.

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