Yesterday afternoon, I attended an inter-faith dialogue in Yangon. In the opening remarks, a diplomat used what I thought was the perfect metaphor: these meetings are important, she said, but we should be careful not to preach only to the choir.
A variety of choirs were certainly in attendance. I counted some of Myanmar’s most respected Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian leaders and academics. But it was the music, not the preaching, that I thought made such a useful metaphor. Could we all listen to the same song, and yet hear wholly different tunes?
The topic of the dialogue: “the religious roots of social harmony.” The final agenda item: “the way forward.” At the end, I left the room with chills in my back. “Now you can sense the level of hatred,” a friend said to me. We stood on the street outside. “Something to be afraid of,” he said. I went home.
In front of my apartment this week a large stage graces my steps; each night for seven days, hundreds of people from my neighbourhood will listen to a respected monk give a sermon. This is the season of open religious travel; sermons like this will happen on other blocks in my neighbourhood, and all over Myanmar. Later, the blocks in my quarter will pool resources and make large donations of food and home supplies to the elderly in our township. There will be a day in which people from all over the city can come and eat for free, as a public donation.
It is a wonderful month. But when I got home, I did not feel up to navigating the maze of floor mats and praying neighbours to get into my building. I went and sat with Htoo Lay in front of the apartment his extended family shares. He was cooking curry to donate to the monastery. Each week, he and our other friends collect donations and on Sunday night they make curry in a large pot. The pot is more than two-thirds the span of his outstretched arms. Enough curry to feed an army.
Tonight the pot seemed extra full. “Last week, we made fish curry. You remember – the fish were bigger than my arm. Aung Myo Thein took a picture and put it on Facebook. My friend saw that and this week he donated 30,000 kyat. So this week we have a lot of pork.”
“Can I take a picture too?” I asked. He said yes and I stooped to take a photo with my phone. A dog came up and stood next to me as I did. I invited it into the photo. Htoo Lay’s family takes care of five dogs. They used to seem like strays that hung around the block, but now they wear collars. At the end of last year, the city development authorities were poisoning dogs across Yangon. To clean up the city for the Southeast Asia games, said the news. At dinner one week in November, I had asked Htoo Lay’s father if he’d heard warnings about that. He hadn’t. But the next week, I saw Htoo Lay’s brother Aung Aung come out of the house with a handful of dog collars. None of their dogs were poisoned.
I took the photo and sat back down. Aung Aung and his father stood closer to the fire under the pot of curry. “It’s cold!” said Aung Aung, laughing towards me. “You’re just a person that likes the cold.”
One of the dogs slept on the street next to my chair. I don’t know all the dogs’ names. But I know that Htoo Lay’s sister sometimes calls one of the dogs “Kalar Ma.”
“Kalar ma” is a derogatory name, for a person. Maung Zarni translates “kalar” as “nigger.” It’s not literally accurate – others will say that “kalar” simply means “foreigner,” which doesn’t capture it either. It’s the term often used to refer to Muslims, particularly those that identify as Rohingya. Zarni’s interpretation packs a deliberate punch. And there is perhaps grist for the analogy if not the translation: Matt Walton draws from literature on race and white privilege/white supremacy in the United States, as a lens through which to examine Burman privilege in Myanmar.
Whatever the translation, what does it mean to give a female dog a name used to refer to a category of people? I sat in my chair, preparing myself to go home.
The three keynote presentations this afternoon emphasized religious commands for peace and harmony, as found in Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity.
“Every religion should call on followers to live a model life,” the Buddhist keynote speaker, a respected sayadaw, said. “We strongly condemn all violence and conflict, and call for religious leaders to unconditionally condemn violence.”
Another diplomat, an ambassador, drew lessons from other contexts. This is a problem in many places, he said. Sometimes people present themselves as protecting religion or a community, but they do it for power.
I thought of the other diplomat’s metaphor and heard the Ambassador’s song. I wondered what others heard. If one intends to protect race and religion and does not seek personal power, are those intentions not pure? What consequences, from pure intentions.
“Myanmar has managed to forge unity in multiplicity in this pluralistic society since the time of Myanmar kingdoms. Islam reached Myanmar more than 1,000 years ago… We are proud to be dutiful citizens of this beloved land of ours,” said the Muslim leader. “Islam teaches us that we must respect all religions, that came before… The mission of Islam is not to wipe out non-Muslims.”
Much later, in the open discussion, another sayadaw posed a question to the Muslim keynote speaker. “You said that the goal of Islam is not to wipe out any religion. That Islam does not teach harming anybody, any other religions… I am also a history student, and I have also studied many books regarding history… Today, your remark was something different than what I have learned.” A few minutes later, he added, “While we are discussing here in this luxurious hotel, we should also look at what is happening in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, what is happening in Central Africa right now.”
“The media plays a role in this,” said the Muslim leader. “A lot of things happen in America, in Australia, in England, but they were not branded as Christianity. There are individuals who do not follow a certain religion, but they were branded as the example of that religion.”
Another sayadaw: “I would like to talk about the media’s role in the conflict in Myanmar. Very recently… the Irrawaddy and AP mentioned the killing of over 40 or 50 Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, without confirming the information… I also follow the US Embassy Facebook page. One month ago, the US embassy issued the statement regarding the attack on a mosque, without confirming the information. But I was very sorry not to see a statement issued regarding the attack on a very dutiful soldier in Rakhine State.”
One of the moderators turned the conversation towards next steps: “Do we agree on making information on the religious roots of social harmony available to communities, especially those vulnerable to social strife?”
As we discussed sharing such information, another Muslim leader explained obstacles he would face doing so. “In our country, some people are restricted,” he said. “Even elected MPs are not allowed to travel without permission of local authorities. In such areas, how can we ensure the participation of people, from areas in which conflict has already started?”
“Which areas?” asked the younger sayadaw that follows the US Embassy on Facebook. As the elder responded and began to explain restrictions on travel and education in Rakhine State, the sayadaw interrupted him. “Restrictions on you? In Myanmar, if you are a Myanmar citizen, you are entitled to go anywhere.”
“Peaceful coexistence and social harmony should not depend – should be regardless of their ethnicity, colour, their illegality or legality. Every human being should live together within the religious framework. All religious leaders should focus on the religious aspect, not the political aspect.” The Muslim elder continued to speak, but the younger sayadaw interrupted him again. “This is the topic we have to discuss according to the rules and regulation of immigration. It is not the topic to discuss under the topic of interfaith dialogue.”
Here, the unspoken conflict was clear. The Muslim keynote speaker and another sayadaw made comments. A foreigner in the back of the room stood up and, after a few minutes, took the microphone. “I just came back from Sittwe, and I was there as a humanitarian for more than one year. When I was in Arakan State, I didn’t know if I would be back alive, because of the hateful speech. If you want to bring peace, you cannot stay blind, you have to say what is really happening to the Rohingya,” said the humanitarian worker. Tears seemed ready to choke back the words but they did not. “I don’t know how you expect the Rakhine and Rohingya to live together if there is still this hateful speech. Aung Mingalar is the last quarter in Sittwe, and if this continues, there may no longer be a Muslim quarter.”
This is a song to which there are two different tunes. For some, it is a problem. For others, it is the point.
The mood of the room was tense and quiet. The Muslim leader was the first to break the silence: “can we move on to something practical?” A few moments later, an American professor brought the room back to the opening remarks. “All three speeches said clearly that religion does not support violence. We need a common statement rejecting violence in the name of religion.”
Such statements are important and necessary. There have been a few such statements. At the end of March 2013, in the days after Meiktilla, the YMCA in Yangon hosted an inter-faith event, which marked the first time religious leaders from all the major religions in Myanmar came together to speak out against violence. It is difficult to understate the importance of such public statements; at the time, it seemed to help make it acceptable for Buddhists in Myanmar to maintain their position as devote Buddhists without having to identify with violence or the ascendant ‘969’ movement. In those weeks, I stood on street corners counting ‘969’ stickers on taxis. During the first few weeks of March, out of ten taxis I might count one or two with ‘969’ stickers. By the first week of April, only one or two in ten were unadorned.
At the time, speaking out against violence seemed to be the limit of what was possible. The mood in that room at the YMCA had seemed sombre. It had reminded me of a funeral. “Why is it so quiet?” I had asked a colleague as we waited for the speeches to start. “Everyone is worried about what might happen to them for coming here,” she said. “They don’t know how their own community might respond. Will they be called traitors?”
Through the rest of March and into April, youth groups distributed stickers and t-shirts, bearing a promise not to be the cause of racial or religious conflict. At the time, I thought the country might not make it two more weeks without mass violence, nationwide.
In the weeks and months since, it has become less controversial to speak out against violence. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine stronger statements condemning violence than those made this afternoon. But, we must ask: what exactly is being condemned? Or, rather: violence against what is being condemned? Many of my Buddhist friends seek to refrain killing animals. But they will swat a mosquito. And they will eat meat, though they buy it from someone else; butchers are often Muslim.
More to the point: everyone knows a rabid dog must be killed, poisonous snakes driven from the village. And some of the sayadaws in attendance this afternoon have become internationally famous for traveling Myanmar likening Muslims to rabid dogs and poisonous snakes. The question that haunts me: what tune is heard by the audiences of such speeches? Histories of atrocity makes clear that erasing a person’s humanity makes it easier to erase the person, whatever violence this requires. Whatever the intentions – to kill the animal or simply eat its meat – the consequence is clear.
I sat and thought about this as I prepared myself to go home. Had we just spent the afternoon condemning violence, without finding harmony on the most basic of points? As I sat, to my right was the door to the small apartment of Htoo Lay’s family. Stuck to a piece of wood on the metal gate I saw one of the blue and white stickers from the youth groups’ campaign in March and April. A promise not to be the cause of racial or religious violence.
Under the sign condemning violence, sleeps a dog named after a people. I wonder about the way forward.
Matt Schissler has lived and worked in Burma and Thailand since 2007. He is currently based in Yangon, and works with the local organization Paung Ku. Some of his previous New Mandala commentary is available here. The views expressed are his own.
 Dr. Maung Zarni is a visiting research fellow at the London School of Economics. He has written prolifically about religious violence in Myanmar.
 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.
 This is an often-made point, which I have generally heard deployed to prove that Islam is inherently a violent religion. For a discussion of such arguments, see Matt Schissler, “Everyday ethnic tensions in Myanmar,” New Mandala March 27th 2013.
 “This is why it is good to have Muslim friends,” a teacher friend once quoted her students to me as we discussed religious tensions.