A group of armed nationalists forced the shutdown of three temporary places of worship used by Muslims for Ramadan in South Dagon, Yangon, on 14 and 15 May, 2019, creating fear among the Muslim community. Given the history of anti-Muslim violence in urban areas of Myanmar in recent years, stoked by the spread of hatespeech and ultranationalist forces linked with certain factions of the military, many people feared the worst. Yet a group of brave and compassionate Yangonites immediately responded with a campaign to show support and solidarity to the Muslims of South Dagon, showing the potential of ordinary people, as well as setting an example, to combat the spread of hate and fear of the ‘other.’
Over 100 nationalists, including Buddhist monks, surrounded and then entered the Muslim places of worship, forcing the local community leaders to go and sign a pledge that they would not use the buildings as temporary places of worship. The leader of the mob, Michael Kyaw Myint shouted “We members of the public will tear down the Muslim mosque here in this township.” Stones were thrown and people were threatened with knives. This is despite the fact that the local authorities had granted permission for the use of the three buildings for religious purposes for the month of Ramandan – although it must be mentioned that activists on Twitter had commented that permission to use 15 buildings has been applied for, with permission only granted for three. According to the Irrawaddy, witnesses said that at the time, the police took no action against the nationalists. A local Buddhist resident lamented, “I earn my living as a vendor and I have lived alongside these people for a long time. I watched many of these kids grow up. They helped us during funeral services for two of my family members … I can’t imagine how I would feel if the same thing happened at the place where I pray.” Since these incidents, the police have filed charges against two of the leading nationalists, including Michael Kyaw Myint, and the three temporary worship halls have resumed Ramadan services.
In response to the hate and threats of violence against Yangon’s religious minorities, a group of young Buddhists, following the lead of the Abbot of Light of Asia Monastery in Pyin Oo Lwin, U Seintita, came to visit the Muslim community and handed out white roses in a show of support and solidarity. U Seintita explained, “I’d like to show appreciation to all our Muslim brothers [for showing patience]… It’s not only a gesture of peace to those mobs but also a goodwill message to all other citizens.” The White Rose campaign has now spread to other parts of Myanmar, taking the edge of a situation that could have turned more violent very easily.
The fear of violence returning to the streets of Yangon is based on recent precedent. Ultranationalist campaigns, the spread of hatespeech, rumor, and incitement to violence has left different towns and villages of Myanmar scarred. The violence of Mandalay and Meikhtila in 2013, and subsequent flashpoints such as the burning of mosques in 2016 have not been adequately addressed by successive governments. In fact, the previous USDP government, led by President Thein Sein, cooperated with some of the more nefarious elements of Myanmar society, such as Wirathu and his merry band of hate purveyors, the Ma Ba Tha, enacting four discriminatory laws aimed at ‘protecting race and religion.’ The current NLD-led Government, while not actively cooperating with such extremist elements, have not done enough to combat the spread of hatespeech and incitement to violence, much of which is extremely Islamophobic.
In the face of the spread of fear and hate, it is the frontline human rights defenders and grassroots people from the community that have demonstrated that they support a tolerant and diverse society that respects freedom of religion and belief. The brave stand taken by the monks and the human rights activists to support the Muslim community of South Dagon is an inspiration to those who maybe feel despair at the hate and violence that has been inflicted upon Muslims in Myanmar at various points in the past few years. Movements such as the White Rose campaign are leading the way in resisting the fear-mongering tactics of the powerful that can also be seen worldwide. These recent incidents have demonstrated that violence is always close at hand, but thanks to the thoughtful actions of human rights defenders and a conscious local community, the potential for the escalation of violence this time was defused. Yet such campaigns also need to be complemented and supported at the highest level. It is the government that has the primary responsibility and duty to take urgent and firm action to stop the spread of hatespeech, and hold those behind campaigns that seek to spread fear and violence accountable.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By 24 Civil Society Organizations
By 24 Civil Society Organizations
By Foreign Secretary of United Kingdom
By Myanmar Cultural Research Society
By The Free Rohingya Coalition
By UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
By UN Human Rights Council
By Mon Area Community Development Organization
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”