Myanmar and the Asian and the Pacific Interfaith Youth Network

Interfaith Youth Myanmar

On February 20th – 22nd 2013, Religions for Peace International convened a meeting in Yangon, Myanmar, of the Asia and the Pacific Interfaith Youth Network

Report by Prof. D. Cahill, Chair, Religions for Peace Australia

On February 20th – 22nd 2013, Religions for Peace International convened a meeting in Yangon, Myanmar of the Asia and the Pacific Interfaith Youth Network with two purposes:

(1) to make preparations for the Youth World Pre-Assembly to be held in Vienna in November, 2013 prior to the World General Assembly


(2) to launch a youth network of Religions for Peace Myanmar based on a consultative meeting of Myanmar’s young religious representatives.

This is a report of the proceedings and outcomes of the meeting. The meeting was attended by youth representatives from seven nations (India, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) and five major religious traditions (Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic and Sikh). The resource support personnel, mainly from the RfP secretariat in New York, were from Australia, Japan and the USA. There were also about 50 young Myanma from the main religious traditions present. During the meeting the delegates were able to visit the beautiful Shwedagon pagoda, the Islamic Center where, in an accident of history, the last of the Moghul kings is buried, the Hindu Kali temple and the Catholic cathedral of Yangon.

Myanmar in Transition

Myanmar is a country in transition as the Myanma grapple with the reality and challenge of their new freedoms. But they are aware of the darker forces in their society which remain ambivalent about the changes. The Western analyses of the past two decades have been very much driven by the political freedom and human rights perspectives, centred around the position of Aung San Suu Kyi. Less noticed has been the situation of Myanmar as the natural land bridge between China and India. China is aggressively opening up its western and south-western areas centred on the city of Kumming, and the role of China and its recent impact upon Myanmar, especially in Mandalay and the northern part of the country. Will Myanmar become a buffer state between the big Asian superpowers or will it become a bridge state? Myanmar is struggling to operate within the framework of a civil democratic society in its historic transition. A continuing and worrisome burden for Myanmar of the next few decades will be its ethnic and religious diversity, together with the still troubled legacy from British colonial times.

A farmer spreads fertilizer in his paddy field

A farmer spreads fertilizer in his paddy field in Bago District, north of the commercial capital Yangon
© Jason Gutierrez/IRIN

Religions for Peace Myanmar

Given the interreligious challenges facing Myanmar, since 2012 Religions for Peace International has been working in Myanmar – this initiative led in September 2012 to the establishment of the Myanmar chapter, the 91st chapter within Religions for Peace International. Its central organizations include the Buddhist Sitagu Sayadaw community, the Ratana Metta Buddhist organization, the Myanmar Council of Churches, the Catholic Church of Myanmar, the Hindu community of Myanmar and the Islamic Center of Myanmar.

Since its recent foundation, RfP Myanmar has been engaged in interreligious advocacy calling for the cessation of violence in Rakhine state – its key members have been appointed to serve on the investigation commission on the Rakhine crisis. It has also initiated strategic humanitarian assistance promoting intercommunal harmony in the conflict areas. It has also joined an organizational consortium to address gender-based violence, maternal health and newborn care and HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states. Another project to protect vulnerable children is being implemented through its task-force on child protection.

Myanmar and Its Current Situation

The meeting began with an address from a leading member of the Myanmar sangha, who expressed great gratitude for the meeting. He advised the young people that to attain peace in the world, (1) avoid abuse of other people (2) avoid taking other people’s property (3) avoid abusing other people’s spouses (4) avoid telling lies and (5) avoid taking drugs, especially alcohol and marijuana. Then the President of RfP Myanmar, U Myint Swe, greeted all participants. “It is an auspicious day for all people of all religions; this is the very first time that the youth of Myanmar can interact with young people from all over the world”. He said that the people of Burma had been isolated for the past 50 years from the other peoples of the world. “With meetings such as these, the young people of Myanmar can gain exposure to the global world. It is still the very early stages of the transition and all the aspirations of the young people cannot yet be met”. He went on to say that during the last half century the young people had been pushing for the transition and they still had to work very hard for this transition. He added, “We still have to work hard for this transition; there are still strong forces who wish to return to the past. We really need the capacity of the young people, their courage and their ideas”. He then drew attention to the “fire” that has been growing for the past 50 years and had now become serious with the clashes in the Kachin state. “It will take time to extinguish these fires. The religious leaders are trying to achieve peace. But foreign organizations must not pressure us too much to achieve change and peace in a short time”. He made a plea, “I want to request all religions to be tolerant and understanding in building a sustainable peace. We also have to learn from the young people of Myanmar how to build trust”.

Burmese family registers child for birth certificate in Mae Sot: IDs are now issued to all children born in Thailand regardless of their parents’ legal status

The Global Interfaith Youth Network

In the plenary session after the opening, Elida Jbeili, youth program officer for Religions for Peace International, explained how the RfP Global Youth Interfaith Network had been established in Kyoto in 2006 to harness the energies of young people in the six regional areas of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa and the North Americas. The aims of the network are to stop war, end poverty and protect the earth. It has a database of over 9,000 youth organizations across the world.

In 2012, a youth network had been established in Nigeria with a treeplanting ceremony while a youth summit had brought together Arab and European young people to take action on xenophobia and the protection of youth minorities. At the global level, the Arms Down! campaign had collected over 90 million signatures in 90+ countries in support of (i) abolition of nuclear weapons (ii) mechanisms preventing the misuse of conventional weapons and (iii) using 10 per cent of military expenditure for development needs. In the discussions, consideration was given to expanding the theme to Arms Down! Guns Down! because of the dangers of firearms in many societies – global attention was currently focused on the USA but the Philippines also has a serious issue in this area. It is young people, mostly males, who suffer from gun violence. Discussion also focused around a campaign against gender-based violence, partly driven by the Indian youth representatives because of recent events in their nation.

The Asian and Pacific Interfaith Youth Network

The president of the Asian and Pacific Interfaith Youth Network, Lawrence Chong (Singapore) suggested that Asia was growing very fast where 55 per cent of the population were young. He suggested that intolerance becomes unstoppable when there is no mechanism for stopping it. Actions to be taken include adopting a creative approach to interfaith dialogue, articulating the possible positive role of religion in a changing world, building long-term arguments for the importance of religion in a changing world and providing an effective counterforce to extremist influences. He suggested that the Asian and Pacific network needed energizing and more dynamism.

In a further address, he drew attention to the three global challenges of climate change, health and poverty but said there is a fourth not mentioned by the media, namely the challenge of dialogue which is of the utmost importance. However, there is a paradox. Despite all the technological advances with facebook, twitter etc. dialogue has become more problematic. Many young people have been at the forefront of innovation but they must be leaders in sustaining hope. “We cannot choose where we were born but we can choose to be leaders in making dialogue possible”. He referred to the youth meeting in Ambon in 2005 which had been a life-changing event for himself. He mentioned how in his business consultancy organization, each year started with a multi-faith service which actually transforms the perspectives of staff, seeing the value of celebrating diversity and resulting in a better work environment and better partnerships. He concluded, “We are shimmering little lights which shine only a little in a lightened room but when the room goes dark, the lights shine and shimmer brightly. Dialogue is the light, the shimmering candle, to go forward. May we as young people be brave lights in a darkening room; let us challenge our leaders and our peoples in their commitment to peace and positive change, inspired by our faith traditions.”

Dockers silhouetted against street lights

Dockers silhouetted against street lights as fog hangs over Yangon before daybreak
© Jason Gutierrez/IRIN

The World Assembly in Vienna in November 2013

In his address outlining the forthcoming World Assembly to be held in Vienna on 19th – 21st November, 2013, Rev Kyoichi Sugino, deputy secretary-general of Religions for Peace International, mentioned how RfP consisted of five regional councils, 91 national chapters as well as global women’s and youth networks. The theme for the Assembly is “Welcoming the Other: Action for Human Dignity and Shared Well-Being” which contains a powerful message for moving beyond mere tolerance. It does this by (a) deepening the practice of welcoming the other, each religious tradition having unfortunately extremists who do not wish to welcome the other and (b) realizing that each of our communities is a majority somewhere and a minority elsewhere – so we all have a duty to respect and defend religious minorities in our countries. “My own Buddhist tradition emphasizes compassion for the other expressed in loving kindness”. With their different basic religious concepts, Muslims have written to Christians about love of God and love of neighbour. The religious sensibilities of each tradition converge on agreeing that we must care for each other, notwithstanding our theological and political differences. In the ensuing discussion, several young people mentioned the difficulties in many countries faced by intermarriages and the challenges faced by the two young people in such relationships when they cross religious and ethnic barriers. There is an Asian saying, “chickens do not marry ducks”, but chickens are marrying ducks!

Launch of Myanmar’s Youth Interfaith Network

In the final session, held at St Anthony’s parish centre in Yangon, the Religions for Peace Youth Network was formally launched. The main speaker was Venerable Sitagu Sayadaw who described himself as 76 years young. He brought a message from the Lord Buddha who spent his days as a young adult from 29 – 35 years in the forest, reflecting and meditating before reaching Enlightenment. “To establish peace in the world, we have to establish peace in our selves”. Each of us is a mysterious being, and we are called to practise loving kindness to counter the cruelty of the world. Jealousy is a poison to every system of the world. And the minds of people are undeveloped, remaining mired in cultural and moral poverty. As well as the United Nations, we need a United Religions.

At the end of the conference, the Myanmar youth presented their action plan based on fortnightly meetings to discuss topics such as interfaith interaction, educational initiatives, youth empowerment and social activities. It is planned to have activities on international event days and entertainment programs for youth and children. Plans were in place to use the communication media to reach out to the religious youth across Myanmar.

Children trying to get water with a handpump

Children trying to get water with a handpump near the communal water tank built inside a monastery compound. Thar Yar Gone village, Pyinkayaing Township, Myanmar
© Mon Mon Myat/IRIN

Professor Desmond Cahill, OAM.

Prof. Des Cahill, OAM, Chair of Religions for Peace Australia has been an active participant in interfaith activities and has been the Chair of Religions for Peace for 11 years. He is also Professor at the School of Global Studies, RMIT University, Melbourne.

Educated in Australia and Italy, Des Cahill, Professor of Intercultural Studies at RMIT University, has been a world leading researcher and teacher in the areas of immigrant, cross-cultural and international studies for more than three decades.

Prof. Des Cahill

Since the events of September 11th 2001, he has played a major role in researching and bringing together the various faith communities in Australia and across the world through his research and community activities. He currently chairs the Australian chapter of Religions for Peace International, the world’s largest interfaith organization, and represents Australia on the executive committee of the Religions for Peace Asia – in October 2008, he was elected its Deputy Moderator by the Governing Board representing the 18 member nations including Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan and the two Koreas. He is a member of the Australian Partnership of Religious Organisations (APRO) and of the Victoria Police Multifaith Advisory Council.

In 2006, he led Melbourne’s successful bid, in competition against Delhi and Singapore, to host the Parliament of the World’s Religions during 3rd – 9th December 2009, the world’s largest interfaith gathering. As a consequence, he has been made an Ambassador for Club Melbourne, a group of 100 leading scientists and academics, to promote the image of Melbourne around the world.

In the 2010 Queen’s Birthday Honours List, he was awarded the Order of the Medal of Australia for “services to Intercultural Education and to the Interfaith Movement”. Professor Cahill is Chair, Religions for Peace Australia.

Source: © Desmond P. Cahill

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