A mundane one room building made of brick and mortar with no marked architecture and in rather dilapidated condition, that's what it was. The priest greeted us with a smile that was welcoming but it subsumed the feelings of surprise and suspicion as well. There were no idols there and instead the interior walls displayed a collection of colorful flashy posters depicting various gods in different myths. Since I was a student of visual arts, I took keen interest in these.
The priest realised that the visit was more than just a curious peep into a neighbor's courtyard. He put some effort in explaining the poster that I was looking at from close range. Probably based on his experience of handling 'religious tourists' like myself, he knew that I won't be able to relate with any of the painted images. So for each mythical character that he explained to me, he would draw a similar one from the history of Islam. This is God abc who helps people in distress like Hazrat xyz in Islam and so on. This simple man had a narrative of the two religions running amazingly parallel to each other as if it was only a matter of replacing a few names or looking at things from a slightly different angle.
My expedition to the unassuming mandir of Lahore proved to be memorable. It was my first lesson in how to discover unity hidden within our differences. I have been following happenings in Myanmar since long because I admire Suu Kyi. But as I approached my sources recently for a different reason, that is to understand what's going on with Rohingyas, I had an eerie feeling of déjà vu that I could only understand with the help of that priest. Let me share it with you.
Burma, renamed as Myanmar, has only rarely lived as one united country in its history. The land is inhabited by a number of ethnic groups, warring and feuding with each other since eons. One of them, Burman, with over half the share in present population dominates the rest and all the three great kings in the history of that region who could hold this area as one country for brief periods, belonged to the same Burman tribe. The British defeated Burmans in 1885 and annexed this area to British India. To sustain their rule the British did what they did best. They pitched one group against the other; stereotyped some as martial race, pampered others as agrarian while sidelining the least useful ones as savage tribals. By the time of World War II, the ethnic differences were rife and no one believed that Burma could sustain as one country, if and when the British quit. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? The same held true for the other nations-to-be of the region at that time.
Suu Kyi's father Aung San, who was the leader of the Burmese struggle for freedom, gathered most of these groups at a conference and struck a deal with them. The Panglong Agreement defined the basic principles to build a democratic Burma. Aung San however was assassinated months before Burma won its freedom in January 1948. His successor U Nu who ruled till 1962 could not live up to the spirit of the Agreement. He increasingly found democracy untenable and time and again relied on military power to silence political differences and hold Burma together. Do you know how long did Pakistan take in writing its first constitution and why? None of the Bengali, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pakhtun and Baloch was ready to trust the other with power and during the first decade of our existence the biggest question was whether Pakistan was one nation, what language will it speak, who will get what share?
U Nu realised that finding a common ground would remain impossible if everybody continued to identify themselves the way they do - that is as Burman, Shan, Chin, Karen and others. Since most of them are dominantly Buddhists, he thought religion could help him build the much 'desired nation'. One religion, one nation. U Nu declared Buddhism as the state religion. Remember, the Objective Resolution of 1948 that decided that Pakistan's raison d'être is Islam as that was considered as the only cross-cutting cause among the politically divergent provinces. The minority religions in both the countries were terrified and those who had the means migrated out elsewhere.
U Nu's recipe for nation building, however, did no miracle. No surprise for a Pakistani. So he called in army that did what was required of it and yes, they did away with U Nu too and with the charade of democracy and civilian rule. President Sikander Mirza called in General Ayub in 1958 to iron out the differences among nationalities and hold the country together. The general deposed Mirza as his first task and then wound up the entire political system. He could hold the country together for one more decade. Gen Ne Win used ruthless force in an unashamed manner to hold Burma together as a nation, coming to power in 1962 he continued into late 1980s (denying the poor nation even a Bhutto break!).
The Burmese army soon felt the need to legitimise its undemocratic rule and one rather secure way of achieving it is to approach the divine – bribe religious institutions and buy their blessings. The Burmese military gave, and still does, hefty donations to monasteries, builds pagodas (with lots of gold) and organises and celebrates religious ceremonies at state level. The top government functionaries are not only religious; they make sure that they are seen to be so – believing that it makes them legitimate in people's eyes. I am sure this surprises no one in Pakistan where starting from later part of ZA Bhutto's government successive rulers have competed in raising their Islamic credentials.
When a believer pierces a needle into a voodoo doll, does it pin down an evil spirit? I don't know. But what I know is that it pleases the clergy when a group is declared heretical. Towards the fag end of his rule, General Ne Win enacted laws that declared Rohingyas as non-Burmese-citizens depriving them of basic human rights. Rohingyas were a soft target with hardly any support coming in from any quarter of the society. They were dispensable and the military regime knew they cannot resist. The act helped the regime raise its Buddhist credentials besides pitching Muslim Rohingyas against Buddhist Arakanese. The second amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan sacrificed defenseless Ahmadis at the political altar of ZA Bhutto's government. He wanted to help the right wing political parties score a victory. The Amendment in 1974 declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims. In a state that professes a particular religion that kind of declaration grants everyone a free license to persecute the cursed group - turning it into a political voodoo doll.
But this Burmese voodoo doll turned into a Barbie as the 21st century dawned. The country has one of Asia's biggest oil and gas reserves. It already produces 90 per cent of the world's rubies while its jade is the worlds finest. Burma's jungle give 80 per cent of the world's teak and its rivers have plentiful hydropower potential. All these resources assumed great importance as Chinese and Indian appetite for natural resources grew phenomenally. Both the economic giants share border with Burma.
Most of these resources are, however, in areas that belong to non-Burman ethnic minorities while the military junta, and especially its elite, is exclusively Burman. Arakan is the region where oil and gas exploration companies from China, India and elsewhere are stationed. Arakanese are a non-Burman minority that never had cordial relations with the majority but professes the same religion - Buddhism; while Rohingyas who are native to the same region are Muslims. A violent conflict in Arakan is in the best interest of the military junta. As they side with the Buddhists, it helps them project themselves as pious Buddhist but more importantly it gives them the reason to intervene and directly control the area. Martial law was imposed in the region following the recent violence. So while Arkans and Rohingyas fight over petty faith issues, the Burman military enjoys the riches of oil. Now, do I need to draw a parallel of this situation with that of Balochistan and its 'religious minority', the Hazaras and narrate again the political economy of conflict?
I was probably one of the few persons of my generation who visited the mandir that gave me the ability to see things in broader human perspective. I understand that a number of my compatriots could not go through any such experience. But I am sure there must be a giant mandir (an opposite of what I had visited) somewhere in the world that every despotic ruler of the world, whatever their religion, devotedly visits and there must be a priest there teaching all of them the same lessons.
The information about Myanmar's natural resources is quoted from: The scramble for a piece of Burma By Hannah Beech/ Arakan and Kachin States; Time weekly magazine, Thursday, March 19, 2009.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.
Tahir Mehdi works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.
He tweets @TahirMehdiZ
The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.