“Peace Memories” in Myanmar

The Myanmar Media and Society team previews its current oral history project.

The first phase of the Myanmar Media and Society (M.MAS) project sought a better understanding of the nature and resonance of anti-Muslim narratives. We came to see how, on the one hand, they moved between views of Muslims as personalised threat and Islam as a collective threat, and on the other hand, how these were linked by global, national and localised scales that could legitimise these senses of threat. At the same time, we regularly encountered people who articulated felt senses of contradiction between these narratives and their own experiences. The shared memories of times both recent and in the distant past in which they and friends, neighbors, and co-workers lived together. We think these kinds of memories are important and can be valuable components of peacebuilding and conflict prevention for at least two reasons.

First, the existence of memories of peaceful inter-religious coexistence can be the basis for prompting people to critically engage with currently-circulating anti-Muslim narratives, including rumors, hate speech or propaganda. We have observed that reflecting on actual lived experiences of positive engagement with members of other religious groups can establish a contradiction between those experiences and present narratives. But the memories are crucial to this process; for people to be able to reconcile the contradiction between past and present, they must first experience the contradiction.

Second, our research has uncovered instances where memories of peaceful coexistence or mutual assistance in the past seem to have been useful for people seeking to de-escalate tense situations they thought could erupt into wider violence or riots. In our most recent Working Paper, we discussed a case in which local residents were able to defuse a tense situation that seemed poised to produce violence by reminding agitated Buddhists about a notable past moment of inter-religious mutual assistance in the locale. When a fire had broken out and threatened a monastery, Muslims had joined the effort to help save the monks and other religious materials.

We do not claim that the mere existence of these memories creates peace. The point is that they are potentially powerful materials, which people in Myanmar can and do use. They have an important potential role in peacebuilding. We therefore wish to emphasize how important it is that they are not forgotten or re-framed through current exclusionary or hateful lenses. These experiences must be shared, discussed and reflected on in ways that encourage people to remember that peace between religious groups in Myanmar has often been the daily norm rather than the exception.

With this in mind, over the last nine months we have been working to gather oral histories of what people remember about peaceful inter-religious life. Our M.MAS team has recorded oral histories from more than 165 people around Myanmar. Local residents have helped us with an additional 50 interviews. While we cannot fully describe all of this material in a short blog post, we invite you to listen to the podcast of a recent seminar given by some members of our team, where we share several of these accounts in detail.

People’s memories include stories of childhood friendships, where religious differences were unimportant to the daily mischief of children. One Hindu man told of his friendship with a Buddhist and a Muslim that lasted from their school days, through their work life and into old age. The friends helped each other in every aspect of life; they even assisted him to elope with his young wife when their parents didn’t approve! Two of them eventually returned to their hometown after having moved away to find work and continued to meet each other daily at 4.30am to go to the tea shop.

One Muslim woman discussed her close friendship with a Buddhist colleague. Both were teachers and supported each other in their professional activities as well as their personal lives. They shared their religious beliefs and practices with each other without an expectation of conversion, simply wanting to understand the other’s faith. When traveling together, they were respectful of each other’s dietary and other restrictions. They even worked together in their social activism, founding and teaching at a free school for poor children from the local community. In fact, activism and social engagement are areas where much inter-religious engagement has taken place in Myanmar, reflecting the country’s active civil society sphere.

Some of the most common narratives are of festivals, including Muslims helping to prepare food for Buddhist events in their community or Buddhists and Hindus attending Islamic alms-giving ceremonies or Eid events. One thing that is particularly striking is the quotidian nature of many of these exchanges. Doing the washing up after a ceremony or helping a friend to pound chilies in preparing food for a festival are everyday activities that often simply reflect goodwill between friends and neighbors. For many people, the fact that these activities regularly occur across religious lines is unremarkable, which is an encouraging sign. But in times of division between communities, it is important to re-assert this as a norm of engagement across Myanmar.

There were many accounts of mutual assistance, especially in times of crisis. These are particularly important in affirming that religious Others are accepted members of a community, and in highlighting other types of shared identity or interests. One Mandalay resident recounted a fire (always a threat in the city’s tightly-packed neighborhoods) that particularly threatened a Muslim part of town. Monks had gathered in a nearby monastery to sit exams and they were among the first to arrive to help. They ferried valuable possessions out of people’s houses and kept them safely at the monastery for people to collect. They even held on to some TVs from a shop whose owner had fled the fire and couldn’t be located right away.

We plan to share these peace memories through a Burmese and English language book that will be published in Myanmar later in 2017, alongside other dissemination methods. We assume that many people will not be surprised at the existence of these memories and experiences, as they have been a normal part of Myanmar’s social fabric for generations. However, in a time when people are increasingly divided along religious lines, and younger generations do not necessarily have the same experiences of peaceful coexistence, we feel that they must be made available to people again and actively valued as part of efforts for peacebuilding and national reconciliation.

Matthew J. Walton is Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. Matt Schissler is a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Michigan. Phyu Phyu Thi is a co-founder and research manager of the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization. The authors co-founded the Myanmar Media and Society research project.