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Buddhist monks take in displaced Muslims

A welcome change amid Myanmar's recent anti-Muslim violence

<p>Displaced Muslims arrive at Thiri Mangala monastery following last week's violence in Lashio (photo by Daniel Wynn)</p>

Displaced Muslims arrive at Thiri Mangala monastery following last week's violence in Lashio (photo by Daniel Wynn)

  • Daniel Wynn, Lashio
  • Myanmar
  • June 3, 2013
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Buddhist monks have been widely blamed for instigating the spread of sectarian violence targeting Muslims in Myanmar over the past year. But in Lashio, scene of the latest round of rioting last week, the willingness of one Buddhist monastery to receive hundreds of displaced Muslims has demonstrated just how complex this discord in Myanmar society has become.

“If we do not provide assistance to people who are in the most desperate conditions, then our lives will be meaningless,” says Ashin Pinya, the abbot of Thiri Mangala monastery. “This is all about love and compassion.”

When rioting broke out on Tuesday afternoon after a Buddhist woman was set on fire, reportedly by a Muslim, many Muslims in Lashio were forced to flee their homes.

Myint Maung, a Muslim man in this city in Shan state, joined the exodus with his wife and three children on Wednesday. Hearing that Thiri Mangala monastery was welcoming displaced Muslims, he headed straight there.

The fact that he could go there at all made little sense, he said, amid what domestic and international media have simplified as a countrywide battle between majority Buddhists and Muslims.

“If the violence stems from a real clash between Buddhist and Islamic communities, then how on earth can we get food and shelter in a Buddhist monastery?” said Myint Maung. “I don’t know why the violence keeps happening across the country. But I think this is being created by a group of individuals.”

Like most people, he was unable to say who exactly those people might be but the identities of some Buddhist monks who have called for Muslims to be targeted are well known. The most notorious in recent months has been the self-styled “Buddhist Bin Laden,” Wirathu, who has spread his hate-filled anti-Islamic message through social media and DVDs.

His monologues are littered with unfounded accusations – he warns against Muslims who “target innocent Myanmar girls and rape them” – yet he runs a respected monastery in Mandalay with over 2,500 monks and many more followers throughout Myanmar.

The abbot of Thiri Mangala says that those who have carried out violence targeting Muslims in Myanmar since deadly violence broke out in western Rakhine state in June last year remain in the minority. But they pose a major threat to the peace-loving image of the Buddhist community in the country, he warns, as well as Myanmar's fledgling transition to democracy.

“Some Buddhist monks, in the name of Buddha’s teachings, are exhorting hate speeches to create animosity towards Muslims,” he says. “They are just an ignorant minority of people. We will not waiver in our efforts to help people in trouble.”

Some analysts have commented that hard line elements in the military are responsible for fueling the violence following the country’s transition to a parliamentary system in 2011, following half a century of army rule. But this analysis remains as unfounded as the rants by hard line monks like Wirathu.

In Lashio, at least 38 people have been arrested after carrying sticks and machetes, according to police. Warnings by police have been issued over loud speakers that action will be taken against anyone found with a weapon.

Last week’s violence led to the destruction of a mosque, an Islamic school and dozens of homes and businesses. One Muslim man died.

Since Thursday, no new violence has taken place in Lashio as army and police have controlled what has been a city under curfew. Many police and soldiers have been deployed in Muslim neighborhoods which have remained mostly deserted.

On Friday, many shops reopened, except those run by Muslims.

“I don’t think that new violence will take place any time soon. But we will continue the curfew and security presence,” says Maung Lwin, an administrative officer in Lashio.

Compared to Rakhine state or Meikhtila in the center of the country which have seen the worst of the sectarian violence over the past 12 months, Lashio is diverse and includes Buddhist and Muslim ethnic Myanmar along with other groups including Shan and Shan-Chinese. All have lived together peacefully for years, until now.

“We never had this kind of sectarian violence in this town. I have Muslim friends and neighbors who never gave us trouble,” says Kyaw Kyaw, a 60-year-old retired school teacher who lives opposite the burned mosque destroyed last week.

If the city’s Muslims return to their homes, he says he would welcome them back wholeheartedly.

“They are my friends,” he says. “We are sorry about the situation.”

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