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Women aim to build harmony in anti-Muslim Myanmar

An interfaith women's group is helping communities realize that humanity comes before religious affiliation  

Women aim to build harmony in anti-Muslim Myanmar
An interfaith women's group prepares food to feed needy children in a Buddhist monastery near the Irrawaddy riverside in Mandalay on Dec. 20, 2015. ( photo)
John Zaw, Mandalay

February 24, 2017

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Tin Tin Aye, a Muslim housewife, grew up in a mixed neighborhood of Buddhists, Christians and Hindus in Myanmar and she often visited churches and Hindu temples with her childhood friends.

Near her parents' home, a mosque, Buddhist pagoda, Catholic church and Hindu temple are situated side by side in downtown Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar.

"I forget about religion when interacting with Buddhists, Christians and Hindus and I see them as my friends," Tin Tin Aye, who works as a tourist guide, told

Tin Tin Aye has joined an interfaith women's group, set up in 2007 by Sister Kathleen Geaney, an Irish Columban nun.

"It is a special privilege for me as I am more aware of other religions due to participating in the interfaith group," said the mother of two.

While Tin Tin Aye and the women from different faiths were trying to build interfaith harmony, Mandalay was shaken by anti-Muslim violence in July 2014 that left two people dead and a dozen injured.

Anti-Muslim sentiments have also triggered conflict in Rakhine State, where violence in 2012 left more than 200 people dead and forced tens of thousands — mostly Rohingya Muslims — to flee their homes. More recently security forces carried out a bloody crackdown after three police outposts were attacked in Rakhine. It led to more than 69,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh and 24,000 people displaced inside the state.


Cynthia Yin Yin Ohn, a Catholic from an interfaith women's group, provides rice to needy students in a Buddhist monastery near the Irrawaddy riverside in Mandalay on Dec. 20, 2015. ( photo)


Tin Tin Aye now worries for her family's security but she said that her relationship with women from different faiths has not be affected by the violence.

"Our Buddhist friends consoled me and gave me moral support and it enabled us to have a strong relationship," she said.

That is a purpose of the group said another member, Kyin Kyin, a Buddhist housewife.

"I have no prejudice and hatred against Muslims," she said, adding that she is very eager to support others and fulfill their needs regardless of race and religion.

The predominately Buddhist country has seen several bouts of religious violence since the 2012 persecution in Rakhine left scores dead and more than 120,000 people, mostly Rohingya Muslims, displaced. The violence was spearheaded by hard-line Buddhist group, the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, also known as Ma Ba Tha.


Kyin Kyin, a Buddhist(in green blouse), Cynthia Yin Yin Ohn, a Catholic (middle) and Tin Tin Aye, a Muslim, chatting in the office of the Sacred Heart Cathedral, Mandalay on Feb. 21. ( photo) 


Hatred against Muslims and hate speech on social media remains despite the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian government took office in April 2016 ending decades of military rule.

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon said hatred against others of different races and religions has intensified to "a very alarming level."

"Merchants of hatred are in full swing," Cardinal Bo said in a Feb. 6 statement.

Some 37 Buddhist, Christian and Muslim women have joined the interfaith group where they gained friendship and intimacy through regular activities, outreach programs and training.

Furthermore, the group runs a micro-finance program, education support, programs for disabled children and provides food in urban poor communities.

"Our women's group is slowly moving forward with the aim of building interfaith harmony and I let the core members run the programs themselves," Sister Geaney, the group's founder, told


Irish Columban Sister Kathleen Geaney along with her interfaith women's group provides rice to the needy students in a Buddhist monastery near the Irrawaddy riverside in Mandalay on Dec. 20, 2015. ( photo)


Cynthia Yin Yin Ohn, a Catholic housewife, said that they are trying to be a firm network with 37 women from different religions.

"Buddhists and Muslims meet at the church and Christians and Muslims go to the monastery and talk with the Buddhist monks as a result of our friendship," Yin Yin Ohn, a mother of two, told

She added that there is no discrimination among the women and they pray together according to each other's religious practices whenever they conduct activities, meditation or go on excursions.

"We are like a family as we share our joys and challenges together. We all need to join together for a peaceful and harmonious society," said Yin Yin Ohn.

Muslims accounted for 4.3 percent of the Buddhist-majority country according to the 2014 census. Muslims first arrived in the 9th century and are mostly of Indian, Chinese or Pathi descent. Christians make up 6 percent of the population while Buddhists make up the rest.

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