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Freedom of faith and worship in Myanmar

Hla Myo Nwe

In this contributed article, Hla Myo Nwe praises the spirit of tolerance which enables minority communities in Myanmar to freely practise their religious beliefs.

The population of Myanmar is around 45 million and about 80 per cent of the people are of the Buddhist faith, with the rest consisting of Christians, Muslims, Hindus and a handful of, maybe animists, in the remote regions. But from the cultural aspect the people here, whether they are Buddhist, Hindu, Christian or Muslim tend to be more devout and adhere to the teachings of their respective religions, yet there is respect for each other's faith. However, Buddhists being in the majority, their religious activities seem to be more visible and prominent to the casual foreign visitor who might very well misunderstand the situation and jump to the conclusion that others of differing faiths have not much of a role to play in society. They couldn't be more wrong. If you think seriously about it, 80% is a large segment of the population and if say, even only half of them are truly devout Buddhists, then what can you expect? You'll see a huge number of them thronging the pagodas for worship on any day of the week, especially in large cities like Yangon and Mandalay. You will see them making donations large and small for that is an important practice known as dana parami or the virtue of giving as well as holding other ceremonies such as novitiation ceremonies, consecration of pagodas and Buddha images or at the very least offering the early morning meal to a long line of Buddhist monks.

It should also be understood that. Buddhism arrived in Myanmar since the time of the Pyu kingdoms and that Theravada Buddhism has flourished in our country since it was first introduced to King Anawrahta in the 11th century B.C. by the Venerable abbot, Shin Arahan. So naturally you will see pagodas, temples and monasteries new and old wherever you go in Myanmar. We are as a people truly devout Buddhists. But what the stranger needs to know is that we are also a very tolerant people and also have great respect for other faiths. The Buddha Himself taught that it is necessary to have an open mind in his Kalama Sutta and exhorted us not to deride another's belief but to find out for ourselves what truth really is. We place great faith in our religion but are not fanatic about it. There has always been mutual respect and goodwill between Buddhists and those of other faiths. As against the majority of Buddhists, according to facts and figures compiled by the Ministry of Religious Affairs for 2002, the population of Christians in the country is 2,264,884; those of the Islamic faith, 1,692,898 and Hindus, 228,654.

There are 3265 churches, 2266 mosques and 466 temples countrywide where people of these various faiths can hold services and pray in peace. In addition successive Myanmar governments have accorded respect and recognition to non-Buddhist faiths in various ways. Christmas Day is an official holiday, with government offices and schools closed. A Christmas message is broadcast by a dignitary of the World Council of Churches or some other dignitary. Twelve Christian denominational groups are always in contact with the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which helps them to solve their difficulties and to see that their rights are not infringed upon. Extended stay permits are made available to foreign church dignitaries to enable them to complete their projects, which they were permitted to initiate in the first place. Thirteen leading Christian clerics have been granted permanent complimentary tickets to travel first class by train or boat within the country any time they wish. Import permits are easily obtainable for equipment for use in religious services such as movie projectors, videocassette recorders, pianos and so forth. The churches are free to accept international donations in the way of clothes, toys and stationary and other donations. The Christian community in Myanmar publishes six monthly magazines, two bi-monthly journals, seven quarterly magazines, prayer and hymn books and other religious books.

With regard to religious buildings, to date there has been construction of 15 new religious buildings such as churches and two major renovations of old premises and 10 minor repairs. The Government has donated provisions of rice, oil and foodstuff for the Catholic-run old age home in Kandawgalay and I would like to add that many Buddhists frequently make donations for this aged home because they feel it is in the minority. Buddhists are not forbidden to donate their money towards people and institutions of other religions. They pay obeisance to elders of other religions without a moment's hesitation but respect the rights of people of other faiths who are permitted to pay such homage only to their God and no one else. Like the Christians, Bakri Id, which marks ms end of the Lenten period for Muslims worldwide, is an official government holiday. Myanmar Muslims also freely travel abroad. Myanmar Islamic representatives and observers regularly attend the Asia and Pacific Regional Islamic Conference held every two years at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Myanmar Muslims take part in Koran Recitation Competitions that are held in Kuala Lumpur and Thailand. They recently participated in the 8th Asean Koran Competition held in Paris.

Like the Christian clerics, three Muslim religious leaders have complimentary passes to travel first class by rail or boat anywhere in the country. Annual Haj pilgrimages to Mecca in Saudi Arabia are arranged by the Government. Beginning from the year 1980 a package tour was arranged for 150 pilgrims and from 1992 to 2002 the number was increased to 200 pilgrims every year and so far 3640 pilgrims have availed themselves of this programme.  But there are also pilgrims who travel to Mecca through private arrangements with tour companies. No ban has ever been placed on such religious pilgrimages at any time. Islamic literature and calendars are also freely published. There is a Muslim Free Dispensary, which is free to render services which it does, to both Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Secretary 1 General  Khin Nyunt regularly sends messages of salutations on important religious days like the Prophet's Birthday and the Minister of Religious Affairs or sometimes the deputy minister attends such religious ceremonies. The various mosques have their own trust funds and trustees, and there is special legislation whereby Muslims may freely settle any religious disputes or civil suits that may arise between trustees or other religious committees. Families of the Defence Services also donate rice, oil, salt. beans and other foodstuff for needy Muslims every year.

The Islamic community is free to make renovations to religious buildings and schools and major repairs have been carried on 12 large mosques and 10 smaller ones. Four new religious schools have been built and seven others underwent minor repairs. Four Islamic groups have official and regular contact with the Religious Affairs Depart-ment whose responsi-bility it is to resolve any difficulties or problems they may face. It goes without saying that there is no ban on import of religious books and objects. Those of the Hindu faith enjoy similar rights and freedoms. Government offices and schools are closed when the Hindus celebrate the Dipvali Festival of Lights every year, most recently on 4th November. Four Hindu religious leaders, like their Christian and Islamic counterparts, have complimentary first class tickets to travel by rail or boat anywhere in the country. They are allowed to import religious images such as the goddesses Saraswati and Lakshmi and the God Ganesha, and regularly publish a magazine Thitsar Yaungchi and Hindu calendars. The Minister of Religious Affairs also regularly attends important religious ceremonies The Hindu community has been allowed to build two new temples and make major repairs to four large temples and minor repairs to seven others. Myanmar citizens of the Hindu faith are also tree to travel to foreign parts on pilgrimage or to attend religious conferences. Thus every Myanmar citizen enjoys the right and freedom to worship the religion of his choice, and there is firm evidence everywhere. In large cities or small towns you will see many pagodas, Yes! But you will also see churches, mosques and Hindu temples.

Steven Martin, writing about Mandalay in his essay "Orwell's Burma" in Time, Traveller, Fall 2002 issue, p.74, wrote: "Steeples and minarets compete with stupas for the skyline of Mandalay, the result of Indian immigration and Christian missionizing, and from these houses of worship pour the noises of faith: gongs, hymns, bells and the call of the muezzin," adding, "These sounds would have been familiar to Orwell." He was not writing about Mandalay of the past but the present. Our leaders are also devout Buddhists, but they attend religious ceremonies of other faiths. Secretary 1 General Khin Nyunt attends some of these occasions despite his tight schedule like the 9th Christian Youth Day sponsored by the World Council of Churches and the Minister and Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs regularly attend important religious services of other faiths.  The people also are very tolerant. This is hardly surprising if you consider the fact that the only great religion in the world that did not engage in a Holy war is Buddhism. Buddha was a man of peace and our religion is a religion of peace.


Source: The Myanmar Times, 11-17 November 2002, https://www.myanmar.com/myanmartimes/ 

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last updated: 28-11-2002