Burma: Peace advocates drowning out hate speech

Lesley-Anne Knight, CEO of The Elders, highlights efforts by faith leaders and others to promote religious tolerance in Myanmar.

“Myanmar’s new-found political freedoms have created a space for democratic aspirations – but also, sometimes, incendiary language.” I was delighted to read this Washington Post commentary by Charles Bo, the Catholic Archbishop of Yangon. It should be of interest to anyone who follows the process towards peaceful political reform in Myanmar. Archbishop Bo is a leader inspired by compassion, kindness and solidarity. His is a courageous voice of peace. Myanmar is blessed with spiritual leaders such as him, of all faiths.

Unfortunately there are also extremists in the country – committing atrocious acts of violence, shouting over and above the rest of the population, inciting division and grabbing international headlines. They are subverting messages of reconciliation, inclusion and tolerance for cynical ends, not spiritual motives. Myanmar’s new-found political freedoms, including freedoms of expression, have created a space for democratic aspirations – but also, sometimes, incendiary language. Like Charles Bo, The Elders welcome the ‘flower speech’ campaign launched by Buddhist activists.

It is they who can lead Myanmar in reminding critics that – like Islam, Judaism or Christianity – their religion is inherently peaceful. They will show the hateful agitators for what they are. I leave you to read Archbishop Bo’s powerful message: 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 neighbour’ 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.

By Lesley-Anne Knight

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