Muslims upset over Myanmar minister's comment

Social media backlash after religious affairs minister appears to target Islam in remarks about 'extreme religion'
Muslims upset over Myanmar minister's comment

Religious Affairs and Culture Minister Thura Aung Ko attends a ceremony to mark the 71st anniversary of Martyrs' Day at the Martyrs' Mausoleum in Yangon on July 19. He is under fire from Muslims over remarks he made at a funeral. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

Myanmar's Muslim community is dismayed over a government minister's comment about "extreme religion" when he appeared to refer to Islam.

Religious Affairs and Culture Minister Thura Aung Ko told monks during the funeral of a prominent Buddhist monk in Karen State on Nov. 27 that the followers of an extreme religion take three or four wives and have families with 20 children, while "we Buddhists" practice monogamy and raise families with one or two children.

A Yangon-based Islamic group in the Buddhist-majority country has rejected his use of the word "extreme."

"We oppose the word no matter which religion he was referring to as it is being used along with faith," the Society of Enlightening Quranic Knowledge said in a statement on Nov. 28.

Kyaw Nyein, secretary of the Ulama Islam Organization in Yangon, said the comment had prompted concerns among the Muslim community and some people had shown their frustration on Facebook.

He said the Ministry of Religious Affairs had told Muslim leaders that the minister had no intention of referring to any specific religion and was referring to extremists of all religions.

"It is unwise and inappropriate usage," Kyaw Nyein told ucanews.com.

Ashin Ariya Wun Tha Bhiwun Sa, a Buddhist monk known as Myawaddy Sayadaw from Mandalay, said the minister appeared to use the word "extreme" to hard-line Buddhists at the funeral.

"But as a minister it would be wise to avoid the word, which is sensitive and could cause misunderstanding among communities in the country," he told ucanews.com.

Myint Swe, a Buddhist and president of Religions for Peace interfaith group, said religious leaders and the government should collaborate to avoid such problems.

"We need to look at the things beyond the word and to be tolerant about small things, otherwise we may not avoid the vicious cycle of mistrust and conflict. We need to carry out many things to build peace and a harmonious society," Myint Swe told ucanews.com.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture released a statement on Nov. 30 saying that the minister had meant that there are extremists in every religion.

"We urge the public to be tolerant to avoid unnecessary problems and to collaborate together towards stability and peace," it said.

Aung Ko, a former general who was deputy religious affairs minister under the military regime, also made controversial comments in April 2016 via the Myanmar language service of Voice of America (VOA).

"The previous government did not oppress or restrict minority religions, including Christianity, the religion of ethnic groups, or Islam and Hinduism — the religions worshipped by most associate citizens," Aung Ko told VOA.

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Myanmar has seen several bouts of religious violence since 2012, much of it targeting Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. The Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, the Buddhist group also known as Ma Ba Tha, spearheads much of the anti-Muslim rhetoric in Myanmar.

Muslims accounted for 2.3 percent of Myanmar's population in the 2014 census, which did not include the estimated 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine.

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