What’s Your Religion? New Questions in Myanmar Foreshadowing of the Past Week’s Events
Growing up in The United States, inquiring about somebody’s religious orientation doesn’t generally breach the- we just met, hello, what’s your name, conversations. But in Myanmar, as I quickly learned, it does.
“Hello! Hello! Where do you come from?”
“Hi! I’m from America.”
“America! Obama! Haha. He come here. May I ask, what is your name?”
“Yes! Obama! Haha, he did. My name is Megan, what is your name?”
“My name is Win. May I ask, what is your religion?”
Nine times out of ten, this is the flow of first time conversation with the friendly and ever curious, particularly in terms of foreigners, locals here in Myanmar. It’s not rude, or invasive, but its’ certainly not something I was used to answering to a stranger.
The truth of how I feel about religion is far more complicated than a simple one word religious sect, but that’s a different story and conversation all together. When I first started answering these questions, a few times I said: “Um. I don’t really have one…” This was met with incredulous confusion, ten more questions asking how that could be, and some: “NO RELIGION. Are you sure?” So I began to simply say I was a Christian. This was met with a far more comprehending smile.
But the comments that generally followed were striking to me, and frankly worrisome. Myanmar, a majority Buddhist nation that is also home to about a nine percent Muslim population, is a terribly Islamophobic place. And they are quite open about it.
“Oh, Christian. This is good religion. I am Buddhism. This is the best. Then I like Hindu. Then Christian. Then Islam… I don’t like Islam. This is not good religion.”
The number of times I’ve heard somebody rank the meritocracy of the world’s major religions were far too many to ever grow used to. And it’s a belief, though certainly not telling of EVERY individual here, it is the profound belief of many Buddhist Myanmar people to be terribly disconcerting.
In the past week, egged on by an Islamophobic monk named Wirrathu and an unconfirmed rumor regarding the raping of a Buddhist woman by Muslims, the city of Mandalay has been plagued with protests, resulting in a few deaths, mobs, and a 9pm curfew. The eruption of hate over an unconfirmed rumor circled via Facebook does not, unfortunately, surprise me.
But for the sake of the wonderful locals and people I have met here, despite the religious intolerance so blatantly plaguing the public psyche, I hope that the violence of the past week subsides and the people of Myanmar work towards a more amicable coexistence.