Discrimination inspires Myanmar Muslims to keep the faith



YANGON: The recent spotlight on the plight of Rohingyas and discrimination against Muslims in Myanmar has prompted some in the country to learn more about their religion. They hope that by learning more about their faith, they might be able to promote better understanding and counter extremist views.

One such person is first-year university student Tine Thurein Tun who grew up in a Muslim family.

After sectarian clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State back in 2012, some of Tine Thurein Tun's classmates treated him with suspicion and did not want to have any contact with him, he said.

That was when the 17-year-old decided to find out more about his faith because he wants "to show all the people we’re good people; we’re a good religion, we’re not the bad guy".

“I know that Christian friends go to the church on Sunday, Buddhist friends go to the pagoda to pray, Hindi friends go to temple to pray, but they really don’t know about us, what we’re doing in the mosque and they don’t know what we’re doing. After I explain it to them, then they know."

 First-year university student, Tine Thurein Tun says 2012 clashes sparked his interest in religion. (Photo: May Wong)

Tine Thurein Tun said he tries to learn about Buddhism as well by visiting pagodas with his friends. He also believes that his friends are more accepting of him and his religion now that they are more familiar with Islam practices.

The Islamic Religious Affairs Council in Myanmar observed that the 2012 violence between Muslims and Buddhists has indeed motivated Muslims to learn more about their religion. 

Its joint secretary, Wunna Shwe, said anecdotally, he has seen more people buying Qurans and books on Islamic history after 2012. He also said the Internet has played a part in helping people connect with other believers. “Back then, people just went back home after worshipping at mosque, but now they form groups, discuss and share information," he added. 

As Muslims in Myanmar learn more about Islam, Mr Wunna Shwe said he believes "they will have better harmony with other religions”.

To prevent further division between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar, writer and education reformist Ko Tar organises overseas trips for some Buddhist monks.

He brings the monks and religious leaders to places like Thailand, Cambodia and South Korea to expose them to several faiths. This is so they can learn to become more receptive to the other religions in Myanmar and to see how people of different faiths live and interact with each other, he said.

Ko Tar (R), who runs a school, regularly brings Buddhist monks to foreign countries to expose them to different faiths. (Photo: May Wong)

Mr Ko Tar said: "Because of the (military) regime, we become a closed society. A closed society results in closed minds so we have to change those closed minds to become open minds."

By exposing some of the monks to foreign cultures, it could help them learn that "religions are important, understanding is important to be able to live harmoniously", he added.

The majority of the 51 million citizens in Myanmar believe in Buddhism, where Muslims only make up about four per cent of the population. Many hope with better understanding, the two communities will be able to co-exist in a common space peacefully.