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Five teams of top, young journalists set out from Myanmar's commercial hub of Yangon to better understand how the country is changing under a reform-minded government. Travel along with these 20 reporters — 11 Burmese and 9 American — as they journey the ancient Burma Road, through the country's capitals past and present, down the Irrawaddy Delta, onto Inle Lake and across Yangon itself at a critical time in the country's history.
A journey through Burma's capitals, past and present, reveals steady reform and simmering religious hostility.
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.
“All sorts of things come up to the surface after being oppressed for decades.”~Bertil Lintner
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