02/01/2023, 17.31
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A monk from Mandalay studying dialogue to heal his land

by Giorgio Bernardelli

Two years after the military coup, Ashin Mandalarlankara, a Theravada Buddhist monk, speaks about his experience. Currently enrolled in Rome’s Angelicum university, he is studying interfaith dialogue and exchange with people from other religious traditions at the John Paul II Center. In his country, people are suffering and want the religious not to stop “at words but translate all this into concrete actions” for peace.

Roma (AsiaNews) – Two years have passed since Myanmar’s military ousted the government of Aung San Su Kyi, brutally cracking down on protests in Yangon and the rest of the country, which AsiaNews has extensively covered.

Very quickly, early clashes have turned into a bloody all-out war, with almost 3,000 civilians killed, not to mention widespread destruction and a million and a half displaced people in regions ravaged by fighting between the military and local ethnic militias.

Ashin Mandalarlankara, a young Theravada monk, knows this all too well. A few months ago, he left Mandalay and moved to Rome with a special task: further study interfaith dialogue.

"In Myanmar, we have lived far too long without understanding each other, everyone in their own community. This, too, made conflict possible. And the military fanned the flames of these divisions."

Ashin is the first Buddhist selected by the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue, a partnership between the Russell Berrie Foundation (a Jewish institution) and the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas (PUST), also known as the Angelicum, administered by the Dominican Order.

The Center’s aim is to train leaders to work in their own countries for interreligious dialogue and peacebuilding. Each year, a dozen fellows are selected from all over the world to attend a special programme at the Angelicum.

Since the latter was established in 2008, about 130 young leaders from 40 countries have participated in its activities. This year, one of the chosen is a monk from Myanmar.

"For me it is not an easy challenge,” Ashin said. “The linguistic and cultural distance in studying monotheistic religions is tangible. I try to understand differences and similarities with Buddhism, without mixing things up. But, above all, this experience is helping me understand more about the other communities who live next to us Buddhists in Myanmar.”

Dialogue is not a new experience for the young monk. Born in a small village, already he had the opportunity in Mandalay to nurture the desire to meet other religious traditions.

In 2015 he took part in another programme, in Vienna, promoted by the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), an organisation supported by Saudi Arabia.

Once he returned to his country, he started outreach activities involving young Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Bahá’ís.

Today, the fighting caused by the coup two years ago has made this issue even more sensitive.

"We had democracy, but the military held onto economic power," he explained. “They also sought to manipulate religious leaders, Buddhist and others. The result is that secularisation advances – religions are less attractive among people and with this also goes their ability to unite people. This complicates the conflict even more.”

For this reason, dialogue between communities is so important, to which he is particularly committed once he returns to Mandalay at the end of the academic year.

For Ashin, “All religions speak of peace and compassion, and have a humanitarian perspective at the core of their teaching, but the point is not to stop at words but translate all this into concrete actions.”

Islamophobia is one of the issues that must be addressed in his country; so do the close ties between those with power – whether the military or the many ethnic militias – and business groups interested in exploiting its resources.

“People are angry and have a lot of questions about religion. Some wonder: What do religious leaders do? If our leaders stop only at understanding the sacred texts, the distance will only grow.”

While, war victims have seen the doors of Buddhist monasteries open for them, the past two terrible years are inflicting a heavy legacy and psychological traumas on the country.

He expects that "there will be so much need to heal and it will take a lot of dialogue;” this is a tall order waiting for him once his months in Rome are over.

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