A Buddhist devotee worships in front of a Buddha statue at a temple during Poson Poya day in Colombo, Sri Lanka, June 2, 2015. Buddhists celebrate Poson Poya day to commemorate the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka.

A model of reconciliation for Myanmar

Buddhist attacks on Muslim Rohingya minorities in Myanmar (Burma) cry out for a solution. One may lie in Sri Lanka, where a new president, a Buddhist, seeks postwar reconciliation with minority Tamils.

Of all the violent conflicts involving religion, one that really boggles outsiders is the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar (Burma). Since 2012, this Muslim minority has come under attack from the country’s majority Buddhists – with many monks, who normally teach peace and lovingkindness, at the front lines. About a tenth of Rohingyas have had to flee, many by dangerous sea journeys.

Myanmar’s leaders are under pressure from the West to protect the 1 million Rohingyas from Buddhist chauvinists. Yet Burmese nationalism remains closely tied to the dominant religion. Even opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has kept silent about the plight of the Rohingya.

A better course for changing Myanmar, especially as it makes a transition to democracy, is to push for new leaders who seek to reconcile Buddhists and the country’s minority communities. A possible model can be found in Sri Lanka, another one of Asia’s largely Buddhist countries.

Since January, a new Sri Lankan president, Maithripala Sirisena, has sought reconciliation between the island nation’s ethnic Sinhalese, who are largely Buddhist, and the minority Tamils, who are mostly Hindu as well as a smaller Muslim community.

Sri Lanka ended a 26-year civil war in 2009 with the defeat of a militant Tamil group seeking a separate homeland. At least 80,000 people were killed during the conflict. But only with this year’s surprise election of Mr. Sirisena, himself a Buddhist, has the country tried to account for the wartime abuses as well as to seek ways to restore religious harmony.

“Both the Tamil and the Sinhala people and also the Muslim people must accept the truth and come to terms to see how they have contributed to this disharmony and not to find fault with anybody but find ways to live in harmony within one country,” the president said in a speech last month on a day marking victory in the war but which was also called Remembrance Day.

Sirisena has replaced military rulers in Tamil areas with civilian administrators and begun the process of releasing political prisoners and returning land taken by the military. Many more steps are needed, such as demilitarization of Tamil areas and a full accounting of war crimes by both Tamils and the Sinhalese-dominated military.

“Although I am a Buddhist, I never fail to listen to advice of religious leaders of other communities,” he said in a speech this month. “We should allow our religious leaders to guide us in all our endeavors.” 

In the election, Sirisena defeated former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is close to Sri Lanka’s most conservative Buddhists and remains a powerful figure. The new president is walking a fine line in his march toward reconciliation.

Other countries with religious conflict, notably Myanmar, should keep an eye on Sirisena’s successes. In a recent visit to Sri Lanka, Pablo de Greiff, a United Nations Special Rapporteur for countries seeking postconflict reconciliation, gave this hopeful prospect: “If handled well, the case of Sri Lanka has the potential to constitute an example for the region and for the world of how a sustainable peace ought to be achieved.”

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