YANGON – When filmmaker Kyal Yi Lin hopped into a taxi in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, in early September she had an unexpected conversation.
“This beard here, it doesn’t mean I am Muslim,” the driver said, gesturing to his graying goatee,“ I just like the beard.” Kyal Yi Lin nodded and went back to scrolling through her phone, but she couldn’t help asking him what he meant.
“People are not taking my taxi because they think I am Muslim,” he said.
More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled a military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in the past three months. But for many people outside Rakhine, life has gone on as normal. Many have accused the international media of biased coverage in favor of the Rohingya. Online hate speech against Muslims has hit fever pitch.
One Muslim woman in Yangon, who was afraid to give her name, described rising religious tensions. “Parents no longer allow their children to mix with children of other faiths,” she said. When she walks down the street wearing a hijab, she meets hostile stares with a smile “even if they are not smiling back at me.”
“Sometimes they are shocked but sometimes they smile back at me,” she said.
The tense atmosphere is testing anti-racism and interfaith activists like Kyal Yi Lin. The award-winning documentary filmmaker has already had a film – telling the story of a friendship between a Muslim and Buddhist girl – banned from Yangon film festivals.
With daily racism like that experienced by the taxi driver on the rise, she believes there are even bigger challenges ahead. “For now Rakhine needs to heal,” she said.
The Difficult Work of Interfaith Dialogue
When Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi finally addressed the crisis in a speech in September, she was careful to avoid saying the word Rohingya and gave vague bromides about the need for peace.
The speech disappointed human rights activists, but interfaith campaigner and Muslim imam Ko Shine was encouraged by one thing Suu Kyi said, which he posted on his Facebook page: “We are also trying to promote intercommunal religious harmony by engaging interfaith groups. A new curriculum is to be introduced in schools, with a focus on morals, civic ideas and peace and stability.”
Ko Shine was encouraged that “Aung San Suu Kyii mentioned that her government can’t do this alone, but all citizens, each and every one of them, have to work together,” he said.
Ko Shine’s interfaith work developed out of a career fighting HIV and AIDs. He founded an HIV and AIDS prevention program in 2002 and worked to raise awareness and address taboos in talking about HIV and contraception among different faith communities.
He initially faced a backlash, including from his own faith community, but when several of his friends with different religious backgrounds joined the NGO they managed to attract the support of different religious leaders. He built upon these relationships to strengthen interfaith dialogue, for example inviting different religious leaders to a recent Peace Day event.
He has faced opposition to his work but is determined to keep religious leaders talking to each other.
“The current situation is very depressing,” Ko Shine said. “A lot of people have been brainwashed and I think games have been played on us, [that the conflict] is a religious issue, about patriotism, people don’t want to lose their land so they start to fight back. All of these things have made Burmese people think this issue is a religious issue.”
Punks Against Racism
Much of this discussion is taking place online and vicious memes are being shared. Some of the images circulating online show Aung San Suu Kyi standing on the body of a dead Rohingya baby, holding the Nobel Peace Prize medal. Others show the Rohingya represented as rats or dogs.
Many people in Yangon said they were surprised by a surge in racist posts from friends – not just troll accounts.
“What I have seen on Facebook makes me feel so sad, because the majority of Myanmar people, they want to kill the [Rohingya] people” said punk musician Kyaw Kyaw, sitting in his Yangon apartment covered with posters of punks, aliens and rock bands. “I thought before many [people] are open minded and liberal, but even these people support killing of the Rohingya.”
Kyaw Kyaw became a punk when he was 19 years old and is now lead singer of punk band Rebel Riot. He was inspired to write his song “Fuck Racism” when he noticed the surge in racism and extremist monks preaching hate speech against Islam following the violence in Rakhine state in 2012.
He believes that at the heart of hate speech is fear, which is made worse in Rakhine state by people’s limited access to education and healthcare. “If the government cannot save their life there will be fear,” he said. “If you are full of fear, you are ready to be fearful of everything.”
Kyaw Kyaw is determined to continue writing songs that he hopes will open people’s minds. “Rohingya, Burmese, Hindu … we are all the same, just humans,” he said.
The Next Generation
“I used to hate the Rohingya,” said youth activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi. “I just read different articles and all of them say they are a big problem and they want to create their own state.”
“I didn’t know anyone from the Rohingya, but I knew a lot of people who opposed them so I tended to listen with them, the majority side,” she said.
It wasn’t until she met a Rohingya woman in Yangon through friends that she questioned the rhetoric. “I was surprised as I had never met a smart young lady like her before, I thought [Rohingyas] were all from poor families and from a very bad situation in Rakhine state, so that surprised me a lot.”
“I should have not judged a group of people easily not knowing them,” said Shunlei.
Thinzar Shunlei Yi has since established Yangon Youth Network, a group supporting youth development and dialogue. She recently held the first forum for under 30s in Yangon to discuss what was happening in Rakhine.
Many of the young people who attended had “clear questions” but had found “no clear answers,” said Shunlei. She says people have been confused by fake photos online and the gulf in coverage between the international media, which largely focuses on the Rohingya, and local media, which mostly focuses on other residents of Rakhine state, like the Hindus or Buddhist Rakhine.
Thinzar Shunlei Yi argues no one trusts the government’s platform for posting news updates, known as the “information committee,” anymore. Instead she believes it should be re-established so that it includes journalists as well as officials.
She is worried what will happen to the next generation growing up in an environment of hate speech: “We need to encourage people to be more peaceful, not radicalize,” she said.