Assoc Prof Eugene Tan is a faculty in the School of Law at the Singapore Management University. He researches and teaches ethnic conflict regulation. Tan went to Myanmar recently to attend the nation’s first interreligious peace conference. He spoke on Singapore’s experience in managing ethnic relations.

The Independent Singapore spoke to Prof Tan about Myanmar and the lessons we can learn from them.
Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi, in her recent visit to Singapore, mentioned that Singapore could learn from Myanmar. What can Singapore pick up from Myanmar?

One is the stoicism that the Myanmarese have despite their political and economic  hardship.

Two, notwithstanding the long-standing ethnic conflict which also involved armed conflict between some ethnic groups and the state, there is the resilience and commitment to move on to a better future by working together to build confidence and trust among the many different ethnic groups.

Thirdly, we can also learn from Myanmar’s example of the majority Buddhist community taking the lead in outreach to the other faith communities and their leaders. To be sure, this commitment is patchy but during my conference and the study visit that followed, one could detect the resolve that as Myanmar transforms itself politically and economically, the religious state of affairs cannot be business as usual.

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Religion seems to be used as a tool to instigate violence. What makes people, under the guise of religion, take up arms?

Increased religious piety is not an issue in and of itself. It is how the religious fervour is channelled that matters. Is religious fervour used to stoke anger against another faith community, or is it used to good ends. We must appreciate that religion often invokes very strong emotions. That is not to say that religion is emotional. Instead, religion is not something that can be rationalised.

Very often, if a group feels that its identity and security (physical and non-physical) are threatened, religion can very easily be the rallying cry to get the believers to fight for identity, security and recognition. In a word, it’s fear.

The violence is seen as a necessary self-defence rather than an offensive action.

The national identity of the people of Myanmar seems tied intrinsically to their race and religion. Is this a barrier for religious peace?

No. The fact that Buddhism is very much part of the identity of the majority in Myanmar is not a barrier to religious peace and harmony. They are not mutually exclusive. The Buddhist foundation of Myanmar can be a force for good as the country progresses in its reform process.

The challenge is to ensure that the intimate nexus between the state and a specific religion does not become abused as an instrument of fear to the minority faith communities. Similarly, it is about ensuring that the religious identity and loyalty do not take precedence over the national identity and loyalty. Myanmar must develop an overarching national identity with strong civic loyalties. I believe that it is possible to have a strong Buddhist element as part of Myanmar’s national identity.

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Fundamentally, the security of faith communities in any multi-religious country is not a zero-sum game wherein the security of one community requires the diminishing of security of the other faith communities. Instead, the security of one faith community can and will contribute to the security of the other faith communities. Indeed, as we can see in Myanmar, the lack of security and the fear that the Muslims have is also contributing to the lack of security for the majority Buddhists.

Many religions have the objective of sharing their faith and winning converts to their faith. What potential problems could this pose to a society like Singapore?

Evangelisation and proselytisation are very much part and parcel of most religions. It’s an intrinsic attribute of religion and we must expect believers to want to share their message of hope, life after death, and the like. So we should expect proselytisation to occur in any society. Our laws do not prohibit it. Article 15(1) of our Constitution provides that, “Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it.”

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The key question is how is the proselytisation done. Is it done insensitively such as through denigrating another faith? In Singapore’s context, there is also the concern with non-Muslims specifically targeting Muslims for conversion out of Islam. This is a matter that has to be carefully managed by all parties.

The Myanmarese government and opposition have been reticent in recognising the legal status of the Rohingya-Muslim people. Without such recognition do you think there is hope that the violence will cease?

Yes, there is the imperative and urgency to stop demonizing the Rohingyas. Recognition of their right to exist and their right to fair and equal treatment is crucial. But recognition alone is insufficient; there is the need to deal with the fact that many Rohingyas are stateless and Myanmar has to also collaborate with Bangladesh to tackle the problem. There has also to be a concerted effort at reconciliation and then integrating the Rohinyas into the larger Myanmarese society.