MANDALAY, Myanmar — The young monks of the Masoeyein Buddhist monastery moved briskly in flowing maroon and saffron robes as they went about their daily chores and their religious studies.
Some leaned over terraces chanting prayers, stopping only to stare down at a passing stranger. Huddled in a courtyard, another cluster of the monks talked politics while they read local newspapers, pausing now and then to spit wads of betel nut juice from the sides of their mouths. This group was framed by 10-foot murals that featured photos of victims of violence in Iran, Iraq and other parts of the Muslim world. The murals also featured garish images of the corpses of Buddhist victims of violence in southern Thailand and Malaysia where Islamic insurgencies have taken root.
Of the 2,500 monks at this monastery, many were young and muscular. There was an aggressive nature to the monastery that felt far from a commonly held perception of Buddhism in the West as a pacifist faith. Indeed, the slightly militant atmosphere seemed to depart from the principles of Buddhism that so many monks preached and followers of the faith seemed to be living out all along our journey.
This monastic community is part of a vanguard of a new Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar that seeks to “protect” the faith, as they would put it, against a growing Muslim minority population that they feel threatens the country’s majority Buddhist faith and its traditions.
The monk at the center of this emerging movement and the wave of violence that it has sparked is Ashin Wirathu. Arriving on the campus with a dozen fawning monks surrounding him, Ashin Wirathu calmly adjusted a robe that enveloped his diminutive body.
Wirathu was steadfast when asked in an interview about his views on Muslims, and without pausing likened Burma’s Muslim minority population — who have over the centuries come to settle throughout the nation in successive waves — to an invasive species. He said they are like a carnivorous fish, “the African carp,” breeding quickly and devouring their own kind, and for that reason Buddhism needs to be protected from what he sees as an existential threat. The monks around Wirathu nodded in support.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, faces the challenge of creating a religiously inclusive identity as the nation emerges from sixty years of military rule. As the Myanmar parliament begins a new session, the nation is expected to debate a controversial law that would ban interfaith marriage between the nation’s Buddhist majority and minority ethnic groups who practice Islam and Christianity.
This one vignette of the monastery came from a journey through Myanmar's past and present capitals: Bagan, the seat of an ancient empire; Mandalay, the base of the British colonial era; and Naypyidaw, the absurdly sprawling contemporary capital. And all along the way, one scene after another seemed to reveal a complex nation brimming with change and challenges. In Bagan, authorities are consumed with the best way to conserve the Buddhist shrines and pagodas of its past. In Mandalay and nearby Meiktila, we saw communities struggling to emerge from a modern history of xenophobia. And in Naypyidaw and across the country, we observed a nascent democracy trying to acclimate to the sweeping changes that come with development in a rapidly emerging economy.
BAGAN: HOLDING TIGHTLY TO REMNANTS OF THE PAST
"It’s one of the most important archeological sites in the world and like Angkor Wat [in Cambodia] it can be a huge tourist attraction… I think instead of going for just big numbers… this is the time to have an intelligent and informed discussion about [Bagan] going forward, and I think the good news is people are thinking about these things." — Thant Myint U, noted Burmese writer and scholar.
In Bagan, the capital of an ancient empire that thrived from the 9th to 13th century in what is now Myanmar, a cacophony of languages including English, Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish and Burmese, to mention just a few, can be heard from the top of Shwesandaw Pagoda.
Two Spanish tourists, a mother and son, looked exhausted following the climb to the top of the temple. While in conversation with her son, the mother steadied herself against the sihkara, the ornately ridged top of the temple, her hands gripping onto the white plaster that covers Shwesandaw’s red bricks.
The Spanish tourists, upon closer examination, noticed the crumbling grey plaster beginning to pull away just slightly from the red bricks of the sihkara like a loose tooth. The son lifted his sunglasses, inspecting the cracks in the plaster. They both cringed. The two then shrugged, returned to their conversation, and moved to the western face of the temple.
As the sun set, the crowd of tourists looked down upon dozens of about 3,000 red brick or whitewashed stupas dotting the landscape as the sky turned ablaze with hues of purple and grayish blues refracting off of the terra cotta and gold tones of the Buddhist shrines and pagodas that line the horizon. For another evening a multitude of tourists tightly gripped onto of pieces of the temple’s plaster coating, raking their hands over the frail sikhara to gain a better vantage point.
At nightfall, a few kilometers from Shwesandaw in a grassy expanse within the grounds of the Bagan Thande Hotel, which sits along the Eastern bank of the Irrawaddy River, archeology researcher Myo Nyunt Aung examined the hotel's grounds. Aung is a native of Bagan and he frowned as he noticed the broken top of a temple adjacent to the restaurant of the neighboring hotel.
"That shouldn't be," Myo Nyunt Aung said, leaning forward, sighing professorially.
Myanmar's tourism revenue has grown exponentially in the last few years since the apparent regime change from military to civilian rule. The question of whether the area, and its temples, can support the influx is a pressing one.
After growing up in the shadow of the thousands of temples in Bagan, the archeologist’s knowledge of his birthplace has taken him around the world. He excitedly explains, “Conservation is extremely important here. The people want to preserve these temples have studied all over the world, Cambodia, Thailand, the United States. I first studied in India when I began learning about conservation.”
Myo Nyunt Aung continued, “There will be greater opportunities for students in the community. More tourism will mean more people having more money. More kids will be able to afford to stay in school. While people will want to work in tourism, more kids will be able to become engineers, or doctors, and the community will grow.”
Yet simultaneously, he acknowledged, "The people, you know, are for conservation, not development or construction here. These are historic sites." He referred to protests that occurred in 2012, as the national government allowed the continued development of hotels in what were previously listed as archeological zones.
He said, “I believe that the answer is in education. Educating locals about how conservation can help the community, educating tourists about history… Finding a balance.”
Sitting back for a moment, he removed his wire frame glasses, squinted and rubbed his eyes. Taking a last look at the grounds, the river and the temple, he said, “I care about this place. It is my home.”
IN MANDALAY: A STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL OF BUDDHISM
“If you've had a totalitarian state in place for decades and you lift the lid, all sorts of things come up to the surface. Look what happened after the fall of communism in the Soviet Union. All the changes in Eastern Europe. Suddenly you had neo-Nazis, skinheads, pornography, religious cults, all sorts of things come up to the surface after being oppressed for decades. To some extent you see the same thing happening here.” — Bertil Lintner, noted journalist with decades of experience covering Burmese politics and culture.
Long thought of as Burma’s intellectual hub, Mandalay, the former colonial capital, has supported a vibrant community of artists, intellectuals and political revolutionaries throughout the city’s history. Recently much discussion in the city has been about the outbursts of sporadic religiously motivated violence in surrounding areas like Meiktila.
Inter-religious violence led to the razing and burning of Muslim homes and shops throughout the town. Some 80 Muslim women and children were killed and burned. In the conflict’s wake, symbols of Buddhism including colorful sasana flags and 969 stickers abound. The Buddhist flags, a rainbow-colored patchwork symbol of the faith worldwide, were fluttering in the wind over the the charred rubble of the Muslim community.
Thinking for a moment on the role of monks to quell violence throughout the country, Ashin Wirathu, his head protruding from the swathes of robes running around his body, explained, "The role of monks is inseparable from Myanmar’s politics, working for the people without expecting any returns. Currently the role of monks in Myanmar’s politics has been to put an emphasis on not turning back.”
About the 15 percent of the population that practices Islam, he argues, "We want to see signs of a good, genuine friendship… It depends on the Muslims. They are devouring the Burmese people, destroying Buddhism and Buddhist order, forcefully taking actions to establish Myanmar as an Islamic country.”
While many have accused Wirathu of inflaming religious tensions, he smilingly explained, “Just as we value a single human life, we place the same value on the life of a small beetle… We do not discriminate against people based on their religion, the color of their skin, their caste, or race.”
At nightfall, in his busy local coffee shop which has become a local landmark for Mandalay’s Islamic community, U Maung Maung sunk into a chair, lit a cigarette and explained that despite years spent protesting religious violence in Burma as well as the military regime, recent threats to his children from the Buddhist nationalist movement have led him to decide to move his family to Malaysia and ultimately to Norway.
Nonetheless, the stocky man with deep brown skin and his black hair slicked back said he sees his background and his religion as intrinsically Burmese.
“Much of the type of food we eat comes from Islamic areas,” he said. “Even the way that we dress, the longyi, comes from the Islamic community.”
Tears welled in U Maung Maung’s eyes while he explained that the beauty of Burma lies in its diversity. “Everything is in this country. Snow-capped mountains, tropical forests and dry valleys. Anything you could want to see is in this country. It is one of the most beautiful countries in the world.”
Reflecting on how the nation could eventually come together, he explained, "Education. There are many poor people and they don’t interact with other groups of people. With more knowledge people will understand one another.”
At midday at Phaung Daw Oo School, teacher and former student Ei Shew Sin explained that the courage of a nation depends upon “the courage to fight for and protect its minorities.”
Groups of children dressed in uniforms, white shirts with green skirts or longyi, sprinted about the campus. Adding dashes of syncopation to the uniformity were novice Buddhist monks whose shaved heads shined in the midday sun, faces filled with stoic looks that could not hide their true ages.
Ei Shew Sin’s smile was irrepressible. As students breezed by her she excitedly explained, "I’ve attended this school since the second grade. And now this is my fifth year teaching here.”
She looked into a classroom for a moment, clasping a black notebook with a sticker featuring the original Burmese flag adopted after independence.
“I became a teacher because I love it here,” she said. “I love my students. I want to give back.”
The school enrolls over 6,000 and subsidizes the cost of books and study materials, which can be prohibitively expensive in Myanmar. When schooling is not an option, young Burmese are often left with the choice of working full-time from their pre-teen years to provide for their families — or joining a monastery.
Ei Shew Sin’s voice rose as she looked down once again at students coursing through the hallways, “I want Myanmar to be a strong country. A great country. I don’t want Myanmar to become like Thailand, or anywhere else. I don’t want foreigners to control everything here. I want us to keep our culture, and just become better.”
NAYPYIDAW: THE ROAD TO CHANGE RUNS THROUGH A STERILE LABYRINTH
“I like to emphasize that we’ve got to work toward a point where reversing would be too hard for people to contemplate. But we can’t ever say that we’ve reached a point that is irreversible. So we have to go forward.”
— Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
Naypyidaw was built in complete secrecy over five years and made official in 2006. Whole villages and tracts of farmland were paved over and adjacent cities absorbed to create a new capital. With one administrative dictate, the entire bureaucracy of the nation was moved and its employees were relocated. Within a city born of autocratic military whims, a fledgling democracy must attempt to push the nation forward while still grappling with divisive legislation.
To its critics, the capital is a symbol of profligate waste. While the vast majority of Myanmar’s population lives without reliable access to land, health care and education, Naypyidaw’s central district contains pastel-colored luxury apartment buildings, massive zones of largely vacant hotels, oversized and unused roads, multiple golf courses, and ornately designed government buildings.
Naypyidaw’s parliamentary complex is an amalgamation of well-manicured lawns and palatial, terraced buildings with gigantic lacquered teak doors and woodwork meant to imitate a traditional Burmese style.
The parliament was just convening on the afternoon we arrived, starting a new session that will bring profound issues to the fore, including revisions to the constitution and quite possibly the legislative proposal that Wirathu and his strident followers are putting forward for a ban on inter-faith marriage.
The proposal played to Buddhist fears that a growing number of Muslim men were converting Buddhist women to Islam. The same evening, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi came directly from parliament to speak at a dinner sponsored by GlobalPost and the Open Hands Initiative.
She viewed what the reporting the team has done throughout the journeys in Burma. And one of the reporting fellows, Pailin Wedel, told her about meeting Maung Maung, the Muslim community leader and teashop owner who was talking about leaving Burma because of the rising tide of anti-Muslim violence.
“Did he leave?” Aung San Suu Kyi asked.
“Yes, he left two days ago,“ Wedel answered.
“Was he born here?” The Lady wanted to know.
“Yes, his family has been here since the time of Court of Ava,” Wedel said.
“Where did he go?”
“Malaysia,” Wedel replied.
And then Aung San Suu Kyi simply exhaled deeply and looked sad. Later she was asked a question about the rising tide of Buddhist nationalism and she was dismissive of the movement, saying it represented only a small fringe of Burmese society.
Naypyidaw plodded along in its own surreal way. Driving down the twenty-lane highways carved throughout the city, it was common to see no more traffic than a single oxcart or a lone motorbike. At busier times of the afternoon the roads were momentarily filled with the smell of drying asphalt, as workers develop a city that seems to only benefit a select few of the nation's 60 million people.
Once the sun has set, Naypyidaw's dull hum of development comes to a halt and the empty oversized lanes and candy-striped sidewalks absorb the orange glow of the city's reliable streetlights, ironic, as Naypyidaw is perpetually well-lit while the majority of Myanmar's 60 million people live with little access to electrical power.
In a few corners of the largely empty city, hints of a local culture could be found. Sitting above the city’s Night Market, a crowded strip mall of restaurants served patrons deep into the night.
Cab driver Hla Htun Thein, 38, explained the need for development.
"There need to be more cities like Naypyidaw. The country needs development and growth. We need factories here. We need both foreign and domestic investment and for that we need new developed cities," he said.
Tucking a tuft of betel nut leaf in his jaw, Hla Htun Thein continued, "There is real change happening right now. Not too fast though because that could cause real problems, and people might not accept it. But at this pace it feels right."
Reflecting on differences in the nation in the last two years, he looked out at the bustling crowd of restaurant patrons, explaining, "The same websites aren't blocked anymore. More information about the world and he country is out and available. You can't take that away from the people, they won't allow it."
Smiling with with the betel still tucked into his cheek, he said, "The changes that have been made so far can't be reversed, the people still expect more."
For more about the Special Report from GlobalPost co-founder and editor-at-large Charles M. Sennott, as well as a three-minute video about the project filmed in Myanmar, please visit GroundTruth in Burma.