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‘Unity in diversity’ are Burma’s watchwords

Burma stands on a knife edge of hope and fear. During the past three years, President Thein Sein’s government has taken significant steps to relax restrictions and permit a more open society. Many political prisoners have been freed, civil society and media are being allowed more room to operate, and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi sits in parliament after years of imprisonment. The world has rightly welcomed these streaks of hope.

Yet my country’s transformation is still in its infancy. There is a long way to go. The ray of sunshine that the world has heralded is in danger of being replaced by storm clouds. Concern fills our hearts as we see darkness compete with hope. We pray this is not a false dawn.

For five decades, Burma endured crucifixion on a cross of injustice bearing five nails: dictatorship, war, displacement, poverty and oppression. Today, a new crucifixion threatens the country, with five new nails: land-grabbing, corruption, economic injustice, ethnic conflict and displacement, and religious hatred and violence.

Burma is a multiethnic, multireligious country, with a majority Burmese, Buddhist population. If Burma is to be truly free, peaceful and prosperous, the rights of all ethnicities and religious faiths must be protected. A movement that has grown in volume and influence threatens this: extreme Buddhist nationalism.

Over the past two years, Muslim communities have suffered horrific violence, whipped up by hate speech preached by extremist Buddhist nationalists. Thousands of Muslims have been displaced, their homes and shops looted and burned. Hundreds have been killed.

The crisis is most acute in Rakhine state, where the Rohingyas, who have lived there for generations, are dehumanized and rendered stateless. A humanitarian catastrophe threatens to unfold, and deeply entrenched prejudices continue unchallenged.

Elsewhere, other religious minorities are vulnerable to discrimination. Kachins, primarily Christians, have been forced into refugee camps. War continues in Kachin state, and in recent weeks thousands more civilians have been displaced. Northern Shan state has faced increasing offensives by the army. Decades of ethnic conflict remain unresolved, although peace talks are under way. Peace will be achieved only through a genuine dialogue in which the political needs and concerns of all sides are addressed and an agreement is reached to guarantee the ethnic nationalities’ autonomy, equal rights and equal stake in Burma’s future.

Proposed laws on “the protection of race and religion” threaten religious freedom at a time when people are at last beginning to enjoy other freedoms. This legislation, which would restrict interfaith marriages and religious conversions and even seek to curb Muslim population growth, is undemocratic and dangerous. Marriage and conversion are two basic human rights. No one should be forced to adhere to any religion; no one should be told whom they can and cannot marry. Thankfully, Burmese women from all ethnicities and faiths have joined civil society to speak out against this proposal.

Many challenges remain, not least constitutional reform. A most urgent challenge is the need to counter hate speech. Every day, extremist Buddhist monks preach hatred with impunity. My fear is that they are sowing the seeds of further violence, perhaps on a scale larger and more severe than before. Few voices challenge them. However, some excellent civil society initiatives deserve support, particularly the “Panzagar” or “flower speech” campaign founded by blogger Nay Phone Latt, a former political prisoner. Some Buddhist monks are trying to influence their community and engage in interfaith dialogue.

But there is a need for all of us – religious, civil and political leaders – to speak up to counter hate speech with good speech, as well as for the government to bring to justice those who incite discrimination and violence. After decades of oppression, no one wants to limit our newfound freedom of speech. But with freedom comes responsibility. Freedom should not be misused to inspire hatred.

All the religions of Burma have a message of peace. Buddhist concepts of “metta” and “karuna” (“loving kindness” and “compassion”), the Muslim greeting “salam” (“peace”) and Christian values of “love your neighbor” and “love your enemy” must be deployed in building the new Burma. Religious leaders must preach the goodness of their own religions rather than attack others.

Unity in diversity is Burma’s destiny, a unity in which we learn to respect the dignity of difference. The international community must help us in this and in all our struggles. The world must not allow premature euphoria to cause it to turn a blind eye. Burma’s future hangs in the balance.

Charles Bo is the Catholic archbishop of Yangon. He wrote this for the Washington Post.