Ashin Seindita from the Asia Light Foundation with Cardinal Charles Bo and other religious leaders at a 2017 interfaith peace forum in Yangon, Myanmar. (ucanews.com photo)
A prominent Buddhist monk in Myanmar has called for the promotion of unity and harmony to counter the spreading of ethnic and religious hatred.
Ashin Seindita, founder of the Asia Light Foundation, on May 16 reached out to Muslims in the nation's main commercial hub, Yangon.
It was there that extreme nationalists in the Buddhist-majority nation for several days forced the closure of temporary prayer sites during the current holy month of Ramadan.
The monk sat down with Muslim community leaders and encouraged them to show "patience, kindness and love" in the face of provocation from Buddhist hardliners.
Seindita was accompanied by interfaith activists who took with them a symbolic white rose.
Some 100 Buddhist monks led nationalist supporters into three Muslim areas of South Dagon township in Yangon on the nights of May 14 and 15 and demanded that the temporary prayer sites be shut down.
Muslim leaders did so even though they said that they were approved by local government officials.
On May 17, Muslims resumed their Ramadan prayers at the three temporary sites following police security assistance.
But Seindita expressed concern that tensions could erupt into violence.
In an interview with ucanews.com on May 22, the monk, who is actively involved in interfaith activities across Myanmar, appealed to all stakeholders — including the nation's military — to cooperate to achieve peace, economic development and the consolidation of democracy.
He added that "religious hatred" is the main barrier to achieving this goal.
Decades of political instability had kept many people poor.
"So our strength needs to be used for nation building instead of fighting and sowing hatred against one another," he said.
Myanmar has seen several bouts of violence with a religious dimension in recent years, much of it targeting Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.
Hard-line Buddhist monks from what was formerly called the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, or Ma Ba Tha, encouraged anti-Muslim violence in 2012 that left more than 200 people dead and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes in Rakhine State.
Known for its anti-Islamic rhetoric, the nationalist monks' organization has renamed itself the Buddha Dhamma Philanthropy Foundation.
Seindita said most people in Myanmar are aware that religion is used by some individuals and groups for political gain.
Now there is apprehension that such manipulation could intensify in the lead-up to an election scheduled for 2020.
Seindita believes that extremism is the main problem facing the country rather than nationalism as such.
"Under the name of nationalism, attacking other religions is an extremist act," Seindita has said.
Seindita was honored with the World Harmony Award in Oslo in 2015 for his interfaith work along with two other monks from Myanmar.