Tea shop

Editorial note: This essay was written last Wednesday, after the first night of violence in Lashio.

I am seeing something new in the conversations about religious violence that I’m having in my neighbourhood in Yangon. It could be that they are changing, or that I am – I am more worried. Matt Walton’s recent excellent pieces have also added helpful new insights.[1] The language of threats to nation and religion is there, the subtext menacing.

There hasn’t been any abrupt change. Really, I haven’t had time to sit and talk around the corner or teashops lately. Last week, my absence prompted a rumour to spread through the neighbourhood. I had suffered a terrible fate; an article in one of the weekly journals reported that bullets had been found in the garbage can near my building. “We were worried,” my friend Htoo Lay told me when I saw him this weekend. “You disappeared.”

About a month ago, we bumped into each other as I was leaving the neighbourhood. He and our friend Ko Lwin had been watching Youtube videos of victims from the conflict in southern Thailand. A Buddhist person had had their head and fingers cut off, he said. “I don’t know if the person in video is really Buddhist or not,” he had told me. “But I saw it and when I see things like that, I feel it.” He tapped on his chest and then motioned a punch. The bombings in Boston had just happened, so I told him I understood how he could feel that way, but that I still thought it was wrong to respond with anger and violence. “I have friends in Boston,” I told him.

Mosques and schools and shops in Lashio were burning yesterday.[2] Last night I came home from my office late and stopped at the curry stand on the corner to have dinner. The stand belongs to Htoo Lay’s sister and his brothers and our other friends often sit there. A fluorescent bulb plugged into a car battery lit the dark pavement. It was wet and grimy and had just rained.

The corner was quite but Ko Lwin sat with me and started to tell me about a video of a monk being killed in Meiktilla. “Do you want to watch it? I have it on my phone. Aung Kyaw Kyaw has it on his phone too. Everyone does.” I asked him who shot the video. It’s true, you can believe it! he said. “You can see Meiktilla Lake in the video.” This was meant to be dispositive. I didn’t want to debate about the other ways it could have been fabricated or misleading. The video could have been real; Muslims have also committed extreme acts of violence. My main concern, though, was that that debate might become about whether or not retaliation was justified by the particular truth of the video in question.

Htoo Lay rode up in a trishaw. He slipped behind the low plastic stool I was sitting on and rustled among the bags and boxes tucked up under the eaves of the closed shop front against which we were sitting. During the day it sells monastic robes; a large monastery is located a few blocks south from where we sat. Htoo Lay came out with a parcel of roselle leaves and put them in the trishaw and when it rode away he sat down.

He positioned himself to face directly towards me, parallel and away from our table, hands braced on his knees. I could see his jaw clenched, pushing his chin forward. “How did it happen in Lashio?” he asked me. Not, did you hear the news? Or, isn’t the news terrible?

Less than 24 hours since the riots had started, I didn’t know yet. Media stories said that a mob had gathered outside a police station after rumors that a Muslim man had set a Buddhist woman on fire in a petrol station. Some sources said he was Muslim, some said he was not.

I didn’t want to argue about the man in the petrol station. I’d just narrowly avoided the same kind debate with Ko Lwin. I said I’d heard that rumour and people were angry. He gestured at me with the sweeping hand of an orchestra conductor proving a point. I told him I thought violence was wrong no matter what I heard had been done by one group to another. And I told him I thought people shouldn’t be so quick to share and believe rumours.

“I agree!” he said. “If I don’t see it with my own eyes, I won’t do anything.” I should have kept to the first point. Then he pointed towards his sister’s curry shop, conjuring an imaginary scene. “If I saw a Muslim man hitting a Buddhist woman, I would hit back.”

“If I see a man hit a woman, I will also want to stop him,” I said. “I understand. But I don’t think people should go down the road and destroy the school and mosque, too.” There is a mosque on the lower block of the lane on which we sat.

We agreed. “But, how can you stop him? You can try, but he will hit you back.” Another man, who I knew less well, had come and joined us at our low plastic table. Htoo Lay was still turned to sit facing me, but the rest of the table was in the conversation now. “Who will stop it when it becomes a large group – the government?” Everyone laughed. A collective dismissive snort.

At this point we were motioning as if to stand between two sides and I realized this was not the spatial relationship I wanted to establish. “Two sides fighting and you guys as a third side is the wrong way to think about it,” I said. “We are all a part of it; there are more sides than two and you can choose to fight or stay peacefully.”

I could feel that I was not being very persuasive. “We have to think about what we do before that fighting comes to be,” I said, motioning towards the altercation Htoo Lay had conjured. My phone was on the table and I flipped it over. On the back is a sticker that says, “I will not be the cause of racial or religious rioting.” A faded but still legible vestige from an inter-faith campaign led by youth networks responding to Meiktilla in March and April.[3]

We know! Arms around the table went up in the air. They did know. I’d given them stickers during the campaign and they’d put some up around the neighbourhood. Ko Lwin had put them on the van he drives. I made as if to look at the corner where Htoo Lay had put a sticker; it was gone. So too were the ones on the van, which we could see parked nearby. Ko Lwin looked at me. “They washed away in the rain,” he said.

“And also I was worried people would be angry or violent towards me when they saw the sticker. The van is for business,” he said. I had more stickers in my bag but I didn’t say anything. Anti-Muslim sentiments are widespread and palpable and with this come real economic pressures. The inter-faith sticker that used to be displayed under the ‘969’ sticker[4] in the teashop across from my apartment was torn down a few weeks ago. The ‘969’ sticker is still there

Htoo Lay’s older brother Aung Aung came and sat down. He was the first person I ever discussed Islam with. ‘786’ means Islam will take over the world in the 21st century, he told me, referring to the numeric symbols that often mark Muslim-owned shops in Burma. In the Islamic calendar, it is currently the 15th century.

“For example, what if you invite a guest to sleep in your home for one night, and then the next day he will not leave?” Aung Aung said after sitting quietly for a few minutes. “You invited him, but the next day you order him, ‘go,’ and he doesn’t go. What would you do? Think about it.”

“Look at Indonesia. It used to be Buddhist country, now it isn’t.” This from the man I didn’t know very well. He made a fist with one hand and then abruptly covered it with his other open hand, enveloping it with a slapping grasp. He leaned back as if the point had been proven. The point had already been proven. This was feeling more and more fruitless. I tried: “Burma has 60 million people. How many are Buddhist and how many are Muslim? Answer and then ask, is this the most important thing to worry about?”

Rapid discussion criss-crossed the table, too quick and full of slang for me to catch. Conversations like that are purposeful and not for me to understand. Htoo Lay turned back to me. “America is a big country, you don’t have to worry. You remember 9/11 right? But Osama couldn’t succeed.” I wanted to talk about what I thought Bin Laden sought to accomplish, but there was no time. “If Osama had decided to come to Myanmar, he could have taken over. Even against General Than Shwe! Myanmar is a small country. But you don’t have to worry because America is large and has money and many soldiers.”

We were at an impasse and still friends but there was more tension in our disagreement than I had ever felt.

“Our little brother.” Another friend had sat down behind me but I had not noticed. We’d been talking longer and more intensely than I had realized. He had said it in English; the table laughed and his joke shifted the tone. It was time for me to go. He walked me home and as we walked I thought about how long it had been since I had talked to Tin Win. He is the only Muslim in the group and I hadn’t seen him with our friends in months. I wondered if he and Aung Aung still work together on the carpentry jobs they used to share.

[1] Matthew J Walton. “Myanmar needs a new nationalism,” Asia Times May 20th 2013. < http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/SEA-02-200513.html>; Matthew J Walton, “The ‘‘Wages of Burman-ness:’’ Ethnicity and Burman Privilege in Contemporary Myanmar,” Journal of Contemporary Asia Vol. 43, No. 1, February 2013.

[2] BBC, “Burma: Second day of violence in Lashio,” May 29th 2013. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22711806>

[3] Weekly Eleven. “‘Pray for Myanmar’ ceremony draws leaders of four religions,” March 29th 2013 < http://elevenmyanmar.com/national/2971-pray-for-myanmar-ceremony-draws-leaders-of-four-religions>; Joseph J. Schatz, “In Myanmar, a movement for Muslim and Buddhist tolerance,” Christian Science Monitor May 20th 2013 < http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2013/0520/In-Myanmar-a-movement-for-Muslim-and-Buddhist-tolerance>

[4] The ‘969’ movement has received increasing media coverage of late. See for example, Alex Bookbinder. “969: The Strange Numerological Basis for Burma’s Religious Violence,” The Atlantic April 9th 2013 < http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/969-the-strange-numerological-basis-for-burmas-religious-violence/274816/>.