07/01/2013, 00.00
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As activist fears more violence, monks and ordinary Burmese take to the streets to defend Buddhism

by Francis Khoo Thwe
Yesterday, hundreds of people demonstrated against Time magazine for its cover story "The face of Buddhist terror", dedicated to the riots that rocked the country last month. Speaking to AsiaNews, Tint Swe slams the appalling attacks against Muslims. Tensions have led to unacceptable deaths and a negative view of Myanmar and Buddhism.

Yangon (AsiaNews) - Sectarian violence in Myanmar represents a real danger to reforms.  Fuelled by the media, differences could turn people against each other and intensify the conflict, said Tint Swe, chairman of the Burma Centre Delhi, in India. The former representative of the National League for Democracy (NLD), who remains an important Burmese activist in exile, spoke recently to AsiaNews.

Yesterday, hundreds of people, including Buddhist monks, took to the streets in Yangon to protest against last week's cover story by Time magazine titled "The face of Buddhist terror". Protesters accuse the magazine of discrediting a Burmese Buddhist nationalist and want it banned.

For months, Myanmar has been torn by violent ethno-religious clashes between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims.

In the western state of Rakhine, on the border with Bangladesh, Rohingya Muslims have been subjected to harsh repressive measures.

Accused of being illegal immigrants, they have suffered attacks of all sorts following the killing of a Buddhist woman in June 2012.

Since then, hundreds of people have died whilst thousands more have been displaced under the indifferent, if not complicitous eyes of the police and government authorities.

A recent proposal by some Buddhist monks to ban mixed marriages adds fuel to existing tensions and divisions.

Negative portrayals of Myanmar Buddhism in foreign media have equally led to a reaction among ordinary Burmese who tend to defend the country's monks.

Mgr Charles Bo and Burmese Catholic bishops have come out in favour of a peaceful resolution to the controversy, urging the country's leaders to find a political solution to the crisis.

Speaking to AsiaNews, Tint Swe noted that a "lively discussion" is underway in Burmese and foreign media with regards to the US magazine and on the role of Buddhism in Burma, spreading to social media where contrasting views have radicalised.

The country needs "greater freedom of the press", said the activist who is critical of the monks  who defend themselves and their country's majority religion.

"The Burmese are asking themselves whether the monk (U Wirathu) at the centre of the Time story is a hero or a villain," Tint Swe said. Still, for most the article is denigratory towards their religion, but not all are against it.

It is "regrettable" that "Muslims Burmese, who have lived for centuries in a peaceful manner, are forced into silence," Tint Swe explained.

Yet, many Burmese believe that the "peaceful" nature of Buddhism has been exploited for financial gain and that "autonomy and religious freedom" are threatened.

These tensions have led to an unacceptable number of deaths among non-Buddhists, which has the effect of projecting a "negative" image of Myanmar abroad with Buddhism seen as a "violent religion."

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