When the British administrator J.S. Furnivall coined the term “plural society” he was talking about colonial Burma to describe the extraordinary diversity of nationalities, ethnicities, races and religions that inhabited its cities. Sixty years ago he wrote, “Bengali Muslims jostled alongside Iraqi Jews and Armenian Christians”. Walking around Yangon’s streets today, you can still experience this diversity in the faces of its people, in the city’s backdrops, and the many places of worship.
On earlier visits to Yangon I was keen to photograph the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue on 26nd Street. I knew that when the devastating cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008, interfaith prayers were held inside the synagogue. When I visited last year, the place was being refurbished. Inside, the Jewish trustee was giving instructions to the Muslim contractor, whose two workers, Hindu Tamils, were fixing a window. I actually spoke to them in Tamil. This incredible scene — a portrait of diversity — was unfolding in front of me. For me as an outsider it felt extraordinary but I quickly learned that for Myanmar these interactions were commonplace. I wanted to capture more of these everyday interactions and to remind the people of Myanmar that these come naturally to them.
All the remarkable individuals in my short video portraits interact with members of other communities. Dr Khin Win Kyu is an obstetrician at the Muslim Free hospital. For me, the hospital was a microcosm of what an ideal Myanmar society might look like, where people from different faiths come together to help the less fortunate, irrespective of their religion, race or ethnicity. Saw Poe Khwar, a Christian Karen reggae singer, sings about loving each other and stopping the hate, lyrics inspired from his reading of the Bible. Teacher U Aye Lwin recites a Burmese saying, that you need two hands to clap. Importantly, he feels that change must come from both communities, that the Muslims should open the doors to the mosques to show that their religion is not so different. By doing this he debunks myths about Islam. U Nay Win tirelessly helps the victims of violence through his interfaith groups in Mandalay. The group has been especially busy with the recent clashes and curfews in the region. Venerable Tayzar Dipati, a Buddhist monk, stops rumours in their tracks, before they escalate into violence. He works closely with local Muslim leaders in his native town of Shwebo.
I’m grateful to them for trusting me with their stories. I admire their courage in speaking out so publicly about the growing intolerance, rhetoric and violence targeting minority religious communities when so many have been silent.
With the recent religious violence in Sri Lanka, the Myanmar Portraits of Diversity will have particular resonance for Sri Lankans. To echo Saw Poe Kwar words, these messages are not just for Myanmar, but for the whole world.
Dr Khin win Kyu
A Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, Dr Khin Win Kyu has been volunteering much of her time for the last 17 years at the Muslim Free Hospital in Yangon, a hospital that treats poorer communities without charge, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity. Earlier Dr Khin Win Kyu worked in the government service for 22 years. Established in the 1930s, the hospital is a microcosm of what an ideal Myanmar society could be like, where people from all faiths work together to treat the less fortunate, irrespective of their religion, ethnicity or race.
Venerable Tayzar Dipati
Venerable Tayzar Dipati is a Buddhist monk from Shwebo, northwest of Mandalay. He grew up in the monastery as a young novice monk and today, his chief role is to care for young HIV patients and to run the monastery of young monks. U Tayzar Dipati is often called upon by the local community in the area to help neutralise rumours before they grow out of control and on social media, and prevent outbreaks of violence locally. He has strong links to the other religious communities in the area and fosters inter-religious understanding. The monk believes that by learning about other religions, we will realise that they are not so different to each other.
U Aye Lwin
Outside of his work as a sports teacher in Yangon, U Aye Lwin, a Muslim, works tirelessly to debunk myths about Muslims and Islam through peaceful ways, like distributing pamphlets and holding interfaith meetings. U Aye Lwin is also the chief convenor if the Islamic Center of Myanmar and a core member of the Religion for Peace Myanmar interfaith organisation. Learned in Buddhism too, U Aye Lwin believes that Muslims must also look within themselves and open their doors to other faiths so they may learn that their religions are not so different from Islam.
U Nay Win
U Nay Win is the General Secretary of the Mandalay YMCA. A Christian, he is from a mixed heritage and his family travelled widely across Burma, making friends from different communities. Many of these places are still home to him. U Nay Win’s work extends to coordinating the efforts of interfaith groups both in Mandalay and surrounding areas, like Meiktila, where there have been recent outbreaks of religious violence targeting Muslim communities. He talks about his work, the challenges he has faced and how Christians could perform an intermediary role.
Saw Poe Kwar
Saw Poe Kwar is a popular reggae singer from Yangon and a former national football player. A Karen, his grandfather was a missionary who raised Saw Poe Kwar as a Christian, with regular Sunday school and joining the church choir. His single “Love each other” has been a huge hit among young people and he performs regularly around Myanmar for diverse audiences. Saw Poe Kwar has two simple messages: “Stop the hate” and “Love one another”, inspiration for which he distilled down from his reading of the Bible. He hopes these will inspire people in Myanmar to coexist peacefully.
A series of video portraits celebrating Myanmar’s religious diversity.
Directed by Kannan Arunasalam
Filmed & edited by Ed Perkins & Kannan Arunasalam
Grade, audio mix and sound design by Jeremy Hogg
Music by Adam Nicholas
Produced for the Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies
Produced with the support of the Government of Australia, the Government of Norway and The Asia Foundation