Despite somewhat confusing attempts to suspend it, Myanmar’s Ethnic Youth Conference in Shan State went ahead on Tuesday in Panlong Town, the historic site of the 1947 peace deal between independence leader Aung San and ethnic rebel groups.
But amid the last-minute questions of whether the conference, involving hundreds of young people from a number of Myanmar’s ethnic groups, would proceed or not, another depressing drama was playing out behind the scenes.
Two Muslims attached to the ethnic Burmese delegation were being pushed out.
The trouble, according to interviews with the two, started when the Burmese (or Bamar, the largest ethnic group in Myanmar) delegation arrived at a guesthouse in Panlong.
In the group there were 30 people, including the two Muslims, a man named Hlwan Moe Aung, 33, and a woman named Thet Suu Yee, 34. Both are from Bago region.
Hlwan Moe Aung said his National Registration Card identifies him as Muslim, and he was told after arriving by the coordination committee for the National Ethnic Youth Conference that he could not participate, only observe. He left in frustration.
“They told me I am not a member of an ethnic group and they want pure Bamar [Burmese],” he told Coconuts Yangon in an interview on Wednesday.
To understand what happened, you have to understand the composition of a National Registration Card.
There is one space for “Ethnicity/Religion.”
Hlwan Moe Aung said that this space on his card lists him as “Myanmar Muslim/Islam.”
That would seemingly explain the committee’s decision, but he said that in the past, a man named U Phay Khin attended the original conference in 1947 as a “Bamar Muslim.”
The same should be applied to him, his reasoning suggested, and he believed he had a right to a seat at the table.
“This conference was done by a lot of Civil Society Organizations and I am feeling so sad about this,” he said. “My dad was a political prisoner and he died in prison because of a hunger strike. We also sacrificed for the better future. I want to ask them, who loves the country more, us or them?”
The committee also started worrying about Thet Suu Yee, who is of South Asian heritage, a fact reflected on her card in the ethnicity and religion section. It says: “India+Bamar/Islam.”
Responding to the issue, the Burmese delegation was split over what to do, but ultimately agreed not to put up a fight for either of them, according to interviews.
Both believe it had little to do with splitting hairs over ethnic affiliation and more to do with religious prejudice and fears that Buddhist nationalists would react angrily to the inclusion of Muslims.
Thet Suu Yee also left in frustration, speaking by phone on the road back.
“They shouldn’t do this. This is discrimination not only on the religion but also the ethnicity. I am feeling sad. They shouldn’t do this because our country is now on the way to a federal state,” she said.
Around 600 people are attending the five-day conference, whose discussions are of a nonbinding, brainstorming nature.
These aren’t official talks, but they are happening at the same time as ethnic rebel leaders are meeting in Kachin state, and as Aung San Suu Kyi prepares to meet with a handful of holdout rebel groups in Naypyitaw.
Min Hnaung Htaw, the 31-year-old spokesman for the conference and a member of the coordination committee, confirmed that the two left, but said they were not pushed out.
“Actually, we didn’t ask them to leave. They just left when we talked about representation. We told them that this is prioritized for the ethnic [groups] in Myanmar,” he said in an interview.
“We let them attend as observers [not as participants]. If they have an ethnic base, it is fine,” he said. “We’re not inviting individuals. We just invited Bamars so Bamars have to explain about this.”
Members of the delegation could not immediately be reached for comment.
One of the organizers, however, later said on Facebook that the Kaman ethnic group, a Muslim minority in Rakhine state, was represented at the conference.
Buddhist-Muslim tensions have been running high since 2012 clashes in Rakhine State that left scores dead.
In the run-up to last year’s election, Myanmar’s ultimately victorious National League for Democracy came under fire from rights groups for not fielding a single Muslim candidate, something that many believed happened out of fear of angering Buddhist nationalists.
The situation has left Muslims, who make up about 4 percent of the population, feeling left out of the discussion for the new Myanmar.
When the election was over and parliament convened in February, it was said to be the first time in Myanmar’s history that Muslims had no seats.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story neglected to note that the Kaman, an ethnic group of Muslims from Rakhine state, were said to participate in the conference. Both the headline and the article have been amended to reflect this information.