In a conservative Buddhist society like Burma, religion is at the centre of life for much of the population.
Burma is a multi-religious country and there is no official state religion, but almost 90% of the population practice Thervada Buddhism. Today Buddhism is still used to promote the country and some believe adherence to Buddhism is a prerequisite for senior positions in the government and military.
The second season of DVB Debate begins with a lively discussion about whether there should be more separation between religion and the state. On the panel: writer Ye Naing Moe, politician Yan Kyaw and U Sein Win Aung, Treasurer of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda.
Panelists warn against the effects of supporting only Buddhism in state affairs.
“We live in a Unionised country and there are many different religions. But if we focus on the religion of the majority as the primary religion then those who follow the minority religions will automatically feel like 2nd-class citizens” says Ye Naing Moe, Director of Yangon Journalism School.
The Peace Circle Network’s Yan Kyaw agrees, objecting to the way the Ministry of Religion deals with Burma’s multi-religious society:”In our country we have Muslims, Hindus and Christians, even people who believe in angels, but if you look at the ministry of religion closely they give the impression they are the Ministry of Buddhist religion”.
The last two years have seen religious clashes break out across the country, and the violence has been linked with Buddhist nationalism.
However, Sein Win Aung argues the ministry of religion is needed to maintain control.”The Constitution says there is freedom of religion and we should not suppress other religions. But because of the way the community has developed we cannot differentiate religion from politics,” he said.
Ye Naing Moe says he doesn’t think religion should have anything to do with citizenship and he objects to the practice of having to declare religious beliefs in situations where it is not relevant.
“In this community when you apply for membership anywhere, even on your national id card, you have to tell them what religion you believe in, what god you pray to! This doesn’t exist in developed countries” he protested. He warns that religion has become a tool of propaganda, insisting personal beliefs, should not be brought into the political arena.
But Ye Kyaw thinks separating them will not be easy, and tells the audience he is sure that politicians will use religion to gain votes in the 2015 election.Influential Monks have played a significant role in Burma’s political history, acting as advisors to the country’s rulers, leading mass protests and even playing a part in the country’s struggle for independence.
In Burma many people rely on monastic schools for education and social care where the government cannot provide it.The studio at least agreed that whatever the benefits or problems it may cause, separating religion from affairs of the state in a country like Burma would not be an easy task.
Next week on DVB Debate – How can Burma’s poorest break the cycle of poverty?
You can join the debate and watch the full programme in Burmese at dvbdebate.com
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