2015
05.30

COEXISTENCE

About criss-crossing Mawlamyine in search of temples, churches, mosques, and shrines on a hot and sunny (!) day on motor bike.   

About 300,000 people live here, which makes Mawlamyine a compact and manageable town.  On one side flows the Thanlwin River, one of the four main rivers of Myanmar.  The long drawn out town stretches and curves along its shores and is backed by a pagoda-studded hill.

At the Breeze Guesthouse there is no shortage of young guys hovering outside waiting for anyone to drive through town by taxi or motorbike.  Today, I hired Wingo to take me on a tour in search of places of religious diversity.  As it turned out, Wingo himself is Muslim, my luck, as it got me further into some mosques than I typically would be allowed.  In Myanmar, contrary to just about all the middle eastern countries I have traveled to, women have no access to the sanctuary!  At every mosque I would have been turned away:  No women — was the call by any man inside the mosque when I approached.  But I made it into four of them at least into the “outer” areas.  The most welcoming mosque of all was the only Shia Mosque in town with only 70-80 parishioners. All other mosques were Sunni affiliated.

Mawlamyine is typical for most Myanmar towns:  Pagodas, Dhamma Schools and Buddhist Temples dominate the cityscape, but there is no shortage of brightly colored Hindu temples, small and large.  There are numerous towers, indicating mosques and steeples with crosses to indicate usually Baptist Churches, but also Roman Catholic or Presbyterian ones.  To round out the picture you might find the occasional Sikh Temple and a fair number of Chinese temples.  And if you look carefully you will not miss the frequent small shrines dedicated to the local Nat.  You will most likely look in vain for a synagogue except in Yangon which I hear still has one.

As a tourist I will not be able to look much behind the façade.  On the surface all seems fine in the areas I have seen so far.  When I ask about religious coexistence the answer is usually:  “All is fine here”.

But here is a variety of incidental evidence which might shed some light on the trepidations and prejudices that simmer below the surface:

  1. Once I took a trishaw and for a short time left my bag with my driver (quite deliberately).  When I came back I was instructed by the very driver that this is not a good thing for a tourist to do.  He is a Buddhist, so I have nothing to worry about.  But if my guide had been a Muslim, I could not have trusted him…
  1. Another time I took a motor cycle.  My driver turned out to be a Christian.  When we visited a Buddhist Temple he dismissively pointed to the various shrines all around me stating how arrogant Buddhists are to think they are right about all this stuff.  Really, there is only one God…
  1. At every one of the mosques I visited today I was asked about my religion which I stated to be Christian (agnostic does not fly around here).  In 3 out of 4 I was warmly welcomed after that with the assurance that we are all brothers and sisters after all.  In the fourth mosque, where I had been mistaken for a Muslim since just for today I had chosen a hijab variation as my head cover, I first was quizzed on exactly what stripe Muslim I was and when I said that I was a Christian, I was no longer welcome but firmly thrown out…

And just for statistic’s sake, here is a link to the religious makeup of Myanmar.

What does this all mean?  I am not quite sure.

But my current assessment is this: despite this incredible variety of religions there seems to be little cross-religious education.  In the cities there are loose quarters of predominantly religious groups.  Chinese Taoists most likely live in the vicinity of the Chinese temple and so on.  Every group is suspicious of “the others”  and claims virtues such as honesty, hospitality, and piety for themselves.  And each group clearly can identify “the other” by name, culture, religion and ethnicity.

However, the question “where are you from” — trying to get to the root of an ethnic background — seems to be as misplaced as in many cases this question would be in America.  I asked my taxi driver that and he said:  I am Myanmar.  Yes, but where did your parents come from?  But it was not his parents, but his great-grand parents who once came from Pakistan.  He does not consider himself Pakistani at all.  He is a Myanmar.

There is perhaps one thing that unites all religious and ethnic groups: the continuing unhappiness with the state of affairs in the country in general; economic poverty, military government, politics, etc.  But few talk about it; not yet to me.

This most likely is not the last time that I will explore this topic.  I hope that more opportunities will present themselves to talk to people about their religions and how they see the situation in their country.  I will keep you posted.

It was a hot and sunny day!  Yes, they are still around.  Rainy season is not in full swing yet!  I can’t even imagine how it feels around here when the thermometer climbs into the 45 degrees Celsius range (113°F).  I guess it is “dry” heat then.  But at 35 degrees (95°F) and in this humidity, I am fried!  Quite literally, despite renewing my layer of sun factor 50 at mid-day, I had a sunburn in face and neck.

So perhaps, there will be a few good pictures after all, here and there, scratched lens permitting.

Good night.