As roiling social undercurrents of nationalism and Islamophobia continue to plague Myanmar, interfaith activists across the Southeast Asian country are taking a stand of solidarity with local Muslim communities with the #WhiteRose4Peace campaign, an act of peaceful defiance against the violence and intolerance that has festered in the Buddhist-majority nation in recent years.
The #WhiteRose4Peace movement began on 16 May when renowned Buddhist monk U Bandatta Seindita visited the Muslim community in the city of Yangon’s South Dagon Township a day after an armed mob numbering more than 100—including some Buddhist monks—had forced the closure of temporary prayer houses set up for Ramadan. Calling for “empathy, kindness, compassion, and tolerance,” U Bandatta Seindita handed out white roses to those who received him as a symbol of interfaith dialogue. (Coconuts Myanmar)
“I came here to show solidarity and humanitarian spirit after what happened last night. 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,” U Bandatta Seindita told the small assembly. “If we are patient with each other, everyone in our nation can live prosperously. I want to thank you for your patience. Please continue to be patient in the future.” (Myanmar Now, Coconuts Myanmar)
U Bandatta Seindita is the founder of the Asia Light Foundation, a monastery in Pyin Oo Lwin, near Mandalay, and was honored with the World Harmony Award in Oslo in 2015 for his interfaith work.
Religious tensions between Buddhists and Muslims have simmered in Myanmar for almost half a century, but came to a head with violent clashes in 2012 that killed more than 100 people. Rakhine State is one of the most sensitive and conflict-prone regions in Myanmar, particularly since outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence in 2012 and 2013, following which 140,000 people, most of them Rohingya Muslims, were displaced. Most Rohingya remain in squalid resettlement camps where they are subject to severe restrictions, with limited access to education, healthcare, or employment opportunities, although deadly outbreaks of violence and military action have seen hundreds of thousands of Rohingya flee to neighboring Bangladesh.
In the days since U Bandatta Seindita’s symbolic gesture #WhiteRose4Peace has quietly spread in Myanmar and drawn praise on social media, with growing numbers of interfaith activists offering white roses in Muslim communities around the country, and members of the public joining in by handing out flowers to friends and neighbors. An online campaign has also been launched with the objective of showing “that religious extremism is not accepted in Myanmar and Myanmar people value and respect other religions. We never tolerate religious extremism and hatred among us.” (Facebook)
The day after U Bandatta Seindita’s statement, Buddhist activists offered white roses to Muslims following their prayers at Bahadur Zafar Shar Dargah mosque in Dagon Township, and on Monday this week, a group of Buddhists in Sagaing, near Mandalay, presented white roses at Myoma mosque, saying: “It’s a campaign intended to show our loving-kindness to our Muslim friends here in Sagaing, following the forced shutdown of three prayer houses in Yangon.” (Myanmar Now)
Ma Su Chit, a local resident leading the campaign in Sagaing—the epicenter of anti-Muslim riots in 2013—said that she and her fellow activists planned to hand out more white roses in other towns throughout Ramadan, including the former capital Yangon.
Prominent Mandalay-based writer and peace activist Nyi Pu Law, winner of the Myanmar National Literary Award, joined the show of support for Muslims in Sagaing, saying: “I came to the event out of my own interest. I believe in freedom of religion, and I stand on the side of human rights. I’ve no other reason.” (Myanmar Now)
Speaking to local media, U Bandatta Seindita expanded on his message of peace: “I am not blaming anyone. As a [Buddhist] monk, we are peace-builders, and I want everyone to be tolerant. Anytime there is conflict in the country, there is great harm done and I want to encourage everyone to do what is best for the country.” (Coconuts Myanmar)
Myanmar has seen a steady increase in nationalist sentiment, bolstered by growth in a number of ultra-nationalist religious organizations such as Ma Ba Tha (The Patriotic Association of Myanmar), a collective of hardline Buddhist abbots and influential monks founded in 2013, actively fueling religious divisions in Myanmar, especially toward the Rohingya minority. However, major figures from Myanmar’s mainstream political and religious communities, including the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee of the country’s most senior monks, have publicly spoken out against Ma Ba Tha, saying the group’s policies are not representative of the country’s Buddhist sangha, which has some 250,000 members according to a government estimate, and do not reflect the essence of Buddhism.
Myanmar is a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country, with 88 per cent of the population of some 51 million people identifying as Buddhists, according to census data for 2014. Christians (6.2 per cent), folk religions (0.8 per cent), and Muslims (4.2 per cent) account for the bulk of the remainder. Buddhist monks, venerated throughout Burmese society, are believed to number around 500,000, with an estimated 75,000 Buddhist nuns.
Buddhist monk visits Muslim community in show of solidarity after disrupted Ramadan services (Coconuts Myanmar)
#WhiteRose4Peace campaign goes national (PICTURES) (Coconuts Myanmar)
‘White Rose’ Campaigners Defy Nationalists To Show Solidarity With Muslims (Myanmar Now)
Young Buddhists conduct white rose campaign for Yangon Muslims (mizzima)
White Rose Campaign (Facebook)