Growing up as a Muslim in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar


Equal religious rights are an impossible dream for Ko Thar Nge.

The 30-year-old Muslim of Karen, Burmese and Indian descent says he was discriminated against from an early age.

In the Buddhist-majority Golden Land, members of minorities like Ko Thar Nge face hardship.

“In fact, discrimination is caused by those who exploit extreme nationalism and a religious agenda in politics. Thus, we are now seriously talking about religious discrimination and equal rights.

In fact, this issue will always be a weapon for cruel politicians in our country, which has an unbalanced standard of living and a struggling education system,” the Yangon resident told Mizzima.

Ko Thar Nge says he longs for equal rights. After all, the Constitution of Myanmar guarantees every citizen “the right freely to profess and practice his religion subject to public order, morals or health and other provisions of this Constitution”. The law prohibits insulting or defamatory words or acts against any religion or religious belief.

But tell that to minorities, especially Muslims, who are experiencing problems in Myanmar.

From an early age, Ko Thar Nge used to be called the inappropriate word “Kalar” in school.

The word “Kalar” is a racial slur used to discriminate against Muslims and those of South Asian descent.

Even in class, some of his teachers did not honor him because of his skin color and race, he said, noting that they did so in front of other students.

As a young child, he suffered mental injuries, he says. Some of his classmates ridiculed him for refraining from praying with folded hands during Buddhist chanting sessions in high school. His classmates looked at him suspiciously.

Dealing with the administration was not easy. When he was old enough, he struggled to get a national ID card because he’s Muslim, a typical complaint.

“When we were young, young people used to argue about religion. Usually, a debate about religious beliefs would be a normal thing in other countries. However, in my country, due to the generalization
mislead and systematically trigger information about our religion (Islam) by powerful people, we suffer the consequences. For example, they alleged that if they bought things from us (Muslims), the Muslims would use the money to spread their religion (Islam). They wrongly accused mosques of giving money to some Muslims to marry Buddhist girls,” Ko Thar Nge said.

“These consequences also affect our daily life, and sometimes we lose friends because of it,” he said.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) states that Article 34 of Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution recognizes freedom of religion or belief and grants citizens the “right freely to profess and practice
religion (…) subject to public order, good morals or health and the other provisions of this Constitution.

Section 364 further states that “any act which aims at or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution”.

However, Article 361 of the Constitution recognizes the “special position of Buddhism”.

In contemporary public discourse, Buddhism has been closely associated with the state in the Burmese-dominated center of the country, reports the ICJ. The public messages of Buddhist nationalist groups are often
carries a strong anti-Muslim message. This has included depictions of Islam in opposition to Burmese values, inherently violent and a threat to Buddhism.

Buddhist nationalist groups have also advocated or condoned violence against Muslims. The growing popularity of these movements has made Muslims, Christians and, to a lesser extent, other religious minorities feel increasingly vulnerable, reports the ICJ.

Ko Thar Nge says that even though he treats everyone the same regardless of skin color and religion, society can be tough on minorities. It is clear that Myanmar’s military regimes over the years have abused religion in politics and there are widespread misconceptions about minority religions.

He says he respectfully learns about other people’s religions, but found he had to cut ‘extremely religious friends’ from his life.

“Right now, I personally avoid people and companies that may discriminate. I mean these are the people who discriminate against not only people of my religion, but also people of any other religion or belief. I also removed some extremists from my social media friends list. Those who do not respect religions and beliefs will not be compatible with anyone.

The situation in Myanmar is currently particularly tense since the military junta took power last year, with all the unlawful arrests and killings.

Ko Thar Nge discusses the 2017 genocide against Rohingya Muslims, noting that he does not blame people of any religion for remaining silent on this issue.

“While talking about the Rohingya issue, we must also talk about those who have been massacred by the Myanmar military over the generations in our country. In addition, minority ethnic groups were killed in every region. The crimes were committed by the killers,” Ko Thar Nge said.

“In this military-dominated country, not only religious minorities but also Buddhists are killed inhumanely (by the military). The crime is committed by the same group (Myanmar Army),” he said.

That said, he notes that there are Buddhist whistleblowers who have spoken out on the Rohingya issue.

As Ko Thar Nge points out, everyone must speak out against unjust killings, regardless of religion.


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