Published: Monday, July 8, 2013

Myanmar’s religious problem

TIME has recently portrayed Wirathu, a Myanmar Buddhist monk, as “The Face of Buddhist Terror” in its July 1, 2013 international edition. The article became so controversial and sensitive that the Myanmar government banned the magazine.
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 becomes a 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? 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.
The immediate measure should be for the government to contain and control any imminent danger, especially from within radical elements. The government also needs to put in place a transparent judicial review process by adhering to the principle of equal treatment.
The government should 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 neighbouring Bangladesh.
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.

The writer is General Secretary of the Kuki International Forum.