Headmaster U Maung Than Shwe bridges the divide between segregated communities in Myanmar's troubled Rakhine State. Photo by Teza Hlaing. From frontiermyanmar.net
In Myanmar’s strife-torn Rakhine State, where ethnic and religious tensions continue to simmer and segregate the Buddhist and Muslim communities, at least one ethnic Rakhine Buddhist, a 46-year-old school teacher, is willing to bridge this tragic divide that has been defined by violence and bloodshed. Since 2014, Maung Than Shwe has been the headmaster of the Basic Education High School (BEHS) in Thet Kay Pyin village, which is attended by children from one of the state’s biggest internment camps for displaced Muslims.
Unrest has escalated in recent months in Buddhist-majority Rakhine State, where the United Nations reports that as many as 92,000 people have been displaced by renewed violence. Security forces in the volatile region launched an aggressive crackdown in response to deadly attacks in October last year on guard posts near the Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh, in which nine police were killed. Myanmar’s military has reportedly killed scores of people and arrested many more in their hunt for the perpetrators, who the government says are Rohingya militants. The action has been accompanied by reports of widespread human rights abuses.
“I feel scared sometimes because I have nothing more to defend myself than a pen. But in my life I developed the mindset of wanting to do the things that other people find difficult,” Maung Than Shwe said of his decision to take on the role of the school's headmaster. “I accepted this job with that mindset from the start.” (Frontier Myanmar)
A 20-minute motorcycle ride from the state capital Sittwe, BEHS Thet Kay Pyin accommodates some 3,900 students, about a quarter of whom are from Thet Kay Pyin and all of whom are Muslim. All of the teachers working at the school are volunteers from the Muslim community: while government-appointed teachers are identified on an official list of personnel for BEHS Thet Kay Pyin, they all teach at other schools.
BEHS Thet Kay Pyin has about 3,900 students, of whom about 1,000 are from the nearby internment camp. Some of the volunteer teachers are also drawn from the IDP camp population. Photo by Teza Hlaing.
Religious tensions between Buddhists and Muslims have simmered in Myanmar for almost half a century, but came to a head with violent clashes in 2012 that killed more than 100 people. Rakhine State is one of the most sensitive and conflict-prone regions in Myanmar, particularly since outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence in 2012 and 2013, following which 140,000 people, most of them Rohingya Muslims, were displaced. Most Rohingya remain in squalid resettlement camps where they are subject to severe restrictions, with limited access to education, healthcare, or employment opportunities.
Maung Than Shwe said his approach to moving between the Buddhist and Muslim communities has been to avoid the issue of religion entirely. “Whether your students are Muslim or Buddhist, if you only think of them as students it avoids problems, he noted. “It is also the key to communicating with them effectively.” Maung Than Shwe added that he had previously spent a year and a half teaching at a school in the predominantly Muslim Maungdaw Township in Rakhine State. (Frontier Myanmar)
U Khin Maung, 57, the school’s deputy headmaster, is a displaced Muslim who lost his home and former job as a high school teacher because of the communal violence in 2012. Since then he has lived with his family at the Thet Kay Pyin internment camp. He observed the school’s Buddhist headmaster also acted as a liaison role between the school and the outside world on behalf of the volunteer teachers, who are not permitted to leave the village.
While he expects to remain as headmaster at BEHS Thet Kay Pyin for two more years before receiving a hoped-for promotion, Maung Than Shwe’s short-term plans include persuading the authorities to provide funding for two new school buildings to ease overcrowding, and to provide salaries for the school’s 46 volunteer teachers.
“We are human and so are they,” Maung Than Shwe observed. “I came here to do the right thing, for the children’s education.” (Frontier Myanmar)
A camp for displaced Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar's Rakhine State. From globalriskinsights.com
Myanmar classifies Rohingya Muslims as stateless foreign migrants although they have lived in Myanmar for generations. The country’s population also includes Muslims from other ethnic groups. According to the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center, Buddhists make up about 80 per cent of Myanmar’s population of some 52 million, and Muslims just 4 per cent.
The radical nationalist Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion (Ma Ba Tha), a collective of hardline Buddhist abbots and influential monks founded in 2013, has actively fueled religious divisions in Myanmar, especially towards the Rohingya minority. However, major figures from Myanmar’s mainstream political and religious communities, including the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee of the country’s most senior monks, have publically spoken out against Ma Ba Tha, saying the group’s policies are not representative of the country’s Buddhist sangha, which has some 250,000 members according to a government estimate, and do not reflect the essence of Buddhism.