The President of the Buddhist Federation of Norway, Mr. Egil Lothe and researcher for the Buddhism and religious minorities project, Dr. Iselin Frydenlund went on an exploratory trip to Myanmar in June/July 2014. The aim of the trip was to learn from Buddhist monks and laypeople about interreligious relations in Myanmar, to understand their concerns, and to discuss peaceful ways ahead. Lothe and Frydenlund were received by high-respected monks such as U Panditabhivamsa of the Panditarama Shwe Taung Gon Sasana Yeiktha, Rector U Addiccavamsa of the State Pariyatti Sasana University, Yangon, and high-ranking monks at the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy in Yangon and Sagaing.
Also, meetings were held at one of the most important nunneries in Yangon. With assistance from local partners, several meetings were organized. One of the meetings was between the Buddhist Federation of Norway and representatives from Muslim organizations. There was also a meeting with a leader of INEB, Myanmar. Concerns over deteriorating interreligious relations and the “political exploitation” of religion were discussed. Two other workshops, one in Yangon and one in Mandalay, were exclusively between Buddhist monks and nuns and Buddhist laypeople. In trust and confidence important issues were raised concerning Buddhism and human rights and the importance of religious freedom for all. Finally, Lothe and Frydenlund were warmly received by the (in)famous monk U Wirathu in Mandalay. The purpose of this meeting was to establish liaison with the “hardline” groups in Myanmar. U Wirathu received a copy of the BFN translation of the Digha Nikaya, and Lothe introduced the BFN. This meeting had less the character of a dialogue than the other meetings and was mostly concerned with U Wirathu´s concern over Islam, not only in Myanmar, but in the wider region. The monk presented strong a very negative picture of Moslems.
The trip to Myanmar reveled several important issues for our project. First, it became very clear that inter-religious relations were high on the agenda in Myanmar. The BFN project was very well received by most of the actors we engaged with, particularly among civil society (organizations of both religious and non-religious orientation), as well as among monks who had been active in the democratic movement, for example among “88 Generation monks” and “Saffron revolution monks”. They were particularly concerned with what they often referred to as “the lack of knowledge of Buddhism” and the “need to understand the true essence of Buddhism”. In their view, a political exploitation of Buddhism is taking place, in which true Buddhist values such as tolerance and loving-kindness are ignored or forgotten. Many called for a reform of the monastic educational system in order to foster more critical thinking among Buddhist monks.
Second, inter-religious relations are so sensitive that discussing these issues are difficult, at least in larger meetings. Also, among certain sections of the monks there is an explicit wish not to engage in these matters. This group can be divided into two: on the one hand there are important groups of monks that are not dedicated to social issues and who most of their time to doctrinal/meditational issues. These monks are not at all interested in engaging in social critique or socio-political activities. On the other hand, there are strong networks of Buddhist monks that are engaged in more radical politics, such as U Wirathu and the 969 movement and the so-called Ma-Ba-Tah network. These monks push for a more Buddhist political agenda, such as laws restricting inter-religious marriages, or conversion. Some of these monks have established links with the radical Bodu Bala Sena in Sri Lanka.
Finally, the trip to Myanmar was highly important for the project as important contacts were established. However, it should be noted that working in Myanmar is difficult; the lack of democratic traditions makes our project challenging – though not impossible – for monks and laypeople alike to engage in. Several of the monks we met in June have now accepted our invitation to the workshop in Bangkok in October. This is very promising and shows that the project is seen to have high relevance to Buddhists of Myanmar.