Indian Catholic News

Easy riders spread message of peace in Myanmar

Young activists take to the roads to preach religious and ethnic tolerance in a divided nation

 
Myanmar: 

Thet Swe Win bought his first motorbike this year. Yet rather than go on joyrides like many of his peers, the 32-year-old Myanmar rights activist decided to put his new scrambler to better use.


He recruited a dozen like-minded young riders in Yangon and together they embarked on an improvised Peace Bike Tour.


Their cross-country trip took them across conflict-strewn areas, including Shan State where ethnic separatism has erupted in renewed violence.The aim of these easy riders from Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital, was to spread a message of religious and ethnic tolerance in a country where such tolerance is often wanting.A sprawling patchwork of indigenous groups,


Myanmar is home to 135 officially recognized ethnic minorities, and divisions along ethnic and religious lines remain deep.


Decades-long separatist insurgencies have claimed countless lives across much of the country and made countless others permanently homeless.


Yet Thet Swe Win and his bikers’ gang of peaceniks encountered no overt hostility on their sojourns. Quite the opposite, he says. “We were warmly welcomed everywhere we went,” recalls the director of the interfaith Centre for Youth and Social Harmony. “Our motto was ‘Stop the fight. Let’s ride.’”


The activists’ route passed through a war zone in Shan State but they were left untroubled by militants and the Myanmar army.


“The trip helped us understand the situation of ethnic minorities,” Thet Swe Win says.


He became a political activist in his late teens and at one point had to flee Myanmar for a while in fear of his life after participating in an anti-government mass rally that prompted a violent response from the authorities. “In Myanmar lots of people are facing repression and discrimination,” he adds. “I feel I need to speak up for them.”

Doing so, however, has earned him plenty of enemies. “I’ve received death threats for speaking up, especially for the Rohingya,” he notes.


Thet Swe Win has been helping spearhead a campaign challenging a dominant nationalist narrative that portrays ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State as foreign interlopers who are plotting a violent takeover of the state.


In 2017, the Myanmar army responded to attacks on civilians and security officers by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army by driving hundreds of thousands of Rohingya villagers from their homes in Rakhine into neighboring Bangladesh.


Appalled by what rights groups have described as ethnic cleansing, Thet Swe Win launched a petition on social media against violence perpetrated by the military against Rohingya civilians.


“Myanmar is turning into a kind of fascist state, which is very dangerous for the country,” the activist says.
Rising nationalism and religious intolerance


Bespectacled and bookish-looking, Thet Swe Win wears worn jeans and a plain T-shirt. His long hair is pulled into a ponytail by a rubber band. He speaks softly and comes across less as a firebrand than an aspiring artist.


To counter rising nationalism and religious intolerance among ethnic Burmese Buddhists, Thet Swe Win has joined other young activists in staging events aimed at fostering interfaith harmony. They record them on camera and upload them to social media for greater exposure.


In late May, he and another prominent young rights activist, Thinzar Shunlei Yi, 27, headlined a grassroots initiative called the White Rose Campaign, which saw young men and women handing out white roses as symbols of peaceful coexistence to Muslims in Yangon and elsewhere.


That same month Buddhist nationalists temporarily shut down some Muslim prayer sites during Ramadan in an effort to deny Muslims a chance to practice their religion openly.


“They discriminate against some minorities in the name of religion,” Thinzar Shunlei Yi says. “There are a lot of anti-Muslim sentiments on social media.”


Indicative of the level of institutionalized discrimination against Muslims in Myanmar is that there are no Muslim members in the country’s parliament, she says.


Thinzar Shunlei Yi is a telegenic 27-year-old who hosts a popular talk show for young people in Myanmar. Even in her teen years, Thinzar Shunlei Yi began advocating radical change in the country.


“In my country, young people have always been on the frontlines of struggling for more rights and freedoms,” she says.


“Young people have to prepare for the future of our country — 10 to 20 years from now. It’s too late to change the mindsets of people who are in power right now because they are too set in their ways and too old to change.”


Yet her youthful activism has put Thinzar Shunlei Yi at odds with her own family. Her father is a senior officer in the military, which has afforded her a privileged upbringing in a country where the military has long dominated both political and economic affairs.


“I’m a Burmese Buddhist who belongs to the majority and I’m privileged compared to [many] religious and ethnic minorities,” she concedes. “So I feel obligated to raise my voice on their behalf.”


She adds: “It’s important for someone from a military family to say something.”
Critics have accused Thinzar Shunlei Yi and her fellow activists of selective outrage because they tend to focus largely on the plight of Muslims in a country where a myriad of other ethnic and religious groups likewise face endless hardships and daily humiliations.


She bristles at such charges. “We are not speaking up for them because they are Muslim,” she stresses. “We would do it for other [disenfranchised] minorities too. If a church was closed down [the way prayer sites at Ramadan were closed down in May], we would stand up for Christians too.”


These young activists’ calls for more rights and freedom to the disenfranchised may end up coming at a cost to their own freedom.


Thinzar Shunlei Yi and Thet Swe Win are both facing legal charges on grounds that they protested illegally against Myanmar’s government. They say they are finding it hard to have proper legal representation as few lawyers are willing to risk their careers by representing anti-government activists.


As many as 380 people classified by rights groups as political prisoners remain incarcerated on a variety of charges in Myanmar, where any form of dissent is frequently suppressed and penalized.

“Almost all activists are facing charges, which is part of a strategy to keep us out of politics,” Thet Swe Win says.


They are more concerned, though, about the regular death threats they receive on social media from people who see them as traitors to their country. “It’s dangerous for us and we are afraid,” Thet Swe Win says. “We don’t want to be beaten or killed. But we won’t stay silent.”


Source: UCAN

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