Care to explain? Minister of Religious Affairs’ remarks criticized for racist overtones

Myanmar’s Buddhist monks march along a street during a demonstration against the planned repatriation of Rohingya Muslims from Bangladesh, in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe on November 25, 2018. AFP PHOTO

An Islamic scholar has fired back after Thura Oo Aung, Myanmar’s minister of Religious Affairs and Culture, made remarks widely perceived as racist at the recent funeral of controversial monk U Thuzana, a figure known for stoking religious tensions between Muslims and Buddhists.

On Tuesday, Thura Oo left little room for interpretation with comments referring to an “extremist religion” that would “become the majority” because of what he claimed were higher birth rates among the group — a seemingly thinly veiled allusion to the country’s Muslim community.

“While the Buddha’s disciples follow the ‘one husband one wife’ policy, and give birth to one or two kids, followers of an extremist religion are marrying three or four wives, and give birth to 15 to 20 kids. It is certain that in the next 30, 40 or 50 years, in the Buddha’s country, national races who follow Buddhism will become the minority,” he told monks and followers of Thuzana at the funeral.

“There is the danger that other religions will become the majority and dominate us.”

The remarks —  aired live on SkyNet DTH, a leading Myanmar television station — immediately sparked a backlash from Islamic groups, with the leader of one slamming them as “hate speech.”

In a statement posted on social media, U San Aung, president of the Society of Enlightening Quranic Knowledge, demanded an explanation from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture.

“We understand Thura Oo Aung’s use of the term ‘extremist religion’ to refer to a specific religion in Myanmar. We are extremely disheartened by the remarks you made when you referred to it, calling it extremist. We oppose these views. Regarding this matter, we demand an explanation from the Ministry,” San Aung said in the statement.

San Aung expanded on his opposition to the Minister’s remarks in an interview with RFA Burmese.

“I respect everyone who practices religion and who believes in their religion. However, I cannot accept someone calling a religion “extremist”; there are good aspects in every religion. I think that the religion and its followers are unrelated. These remarks shouldn’t be made by low-level government workers, let alone the Minister himself. This is hate speech. Hate speech like this affects everyday citizens. It is important to prevent this type of speech in the future,” San Aung told RFA Burmese.

The remarks come less than two weeks after a failed effort to repatriate Rohingya Muslims refugees, who fled to Bangladesh amid a brutal military crackdown on their communities in northern Rakhine State last year.

Not one of the more than 700,000 displaced Rohingya living in refugee camps volunteered to return to Myanmar, where state security forces stand accused of committing numerous atrocities against the country’s Muslim population, including rape and murder.  

According to the 2014 Myanmar Housing and Population Census, Buddhism is practiced by 87.9 percent of Myanmar’s population while Islam is practiced by 4.3 percent.

The Muslim ‘overpopulation’ myth, that a rapidly growing Muslim population threatens the country’s Buddhist majority, is often repeated by Burmese officials and hardline Buddhists.

According to Myanmar’s own census, Myanmar’s Muslim population has remained around 4 percent since the 1980s.

Regardless, claims of “high population growth” of Muslims are often cited as a source of tension, prompting government officials in 2013 to enact a two-child policy for Muslims families in Buthidaung and Maungdaw provinces, places hit hard by the military campaign.

Such rhetoric was long espoused by U Thuzana, controversial monk known for his ethno-nationalist views, at whose funeral the minister was speaking.

Thuzana passed away on October 18 aged 71.

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