In my young age, I had a fascination for mandirs (temple). I wished to see one. I didn't know why and I didn't bother to dwell into reasons. Fascinations are anyways hard to understand and explain. When I joined a college in Lahore in early 1980s and shifted to its hostel, I ventured on to many firsts in my life. And one fine morning, accompanied by a class mate, I went to see a mandir, somewhere on the outskirts of the city along the banks of drying up river Ravi.

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 writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.


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.

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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.

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Comments (67) Closed

Junaid Khan
Aug 07, 2012 09:18am
What took the liberal and criminal media of Pakistan,this long to write about the blood of muslims in Myanmar? However it is never too late....
Toran Verma
Aug 07, 2012 07:23am
Really nice thought and comparison between Pakistan and Burma situation. Why i understood with this article is that you want to give some message to pakistani goverment and people. The message is is situaition in pakaistan specially in Balochistan not handled sincerely, Burma like condition can happen there, and to resolve that open mindness from government body and people of Pakistan is required there.Thanks for this good article and showing real picture of Burma.
S,KAUSHIK, Pune, India
Aug 07, 2012 06:29am
Tahir has done well in drawing the comparison between Burma and Pakistan. .It is the mindset of intolerance towards minorities that engulfs a nation. We do also see such narrow and bigoted mindset here in India, but most importantly the State and the Courts step in to protect the rights of the minorities and acts decisively against those who preach hatred or intolerance. This is what secularism is all about.
Akshay, India
Aug 07, 2012 06:29am
Very good article.
Aug 07, 2012 06:40am
Simply amazing.... Especially drawing parallels between two countries...
Aug 07, 2012 06:23am
My God, what an excellent comparison between the two countries. It is SPOT ON!!
Aug 07, 2012 06:34am
amazing article... I love the way you draw parallel between what's happening in Burma and what happened/ing in Pakistan. Whenever state has taken side with one religion, the people of other religions have suffered. That's why secularism is heart of modern nations. Thanks to false propaganda in Pakistan text books, people now think that Pakistan was made to save Islam. If that's what children are taught from day one, they will loose all respect for the "others".. The "others" will be treated with suspicion and often threatened to follow the majority. I feel everyone in this world should read about all the religions so that they can understand the "other".. It will give them the broader understanding and also make the society tolerant. Keep writing brother and educate the masses.. my best wishes
Krishna V
Aug 07, 2012 06:37am
Great analysis and presented in a simple writing format.. Actually more than the analysis, I liked the presentation and style of writing... Great going Mr. Tahir Mehdi.. and also Great going for Dawn for all the wonderful article that it publishes..
Aug 07, 2012 06:51am
Great column. Wish many Pakistanis understood this.
Aug 07, 2012 07:55am
Great piece of writing.. Hats off to the writer
Aug 07, 2012 12:59pm
excellent article.
Gerry D'Cunha
Aug 07, 2012 08:52am
A_Indian: Your comments makes sense 'I feel everyone in this world should read about all the religions so that they can understand the "other".. It will give them the broader understanding and also make the society tolerant. But my friend in Islam its 'blaspheme' to have and read about other religion. In Saudia Arabia its 'blaspheme' for other faiths to even carry or hold their own religious books and the tolerant Christian communities have allowed the muslims to built their mosques in christian holy places.
Quomi Almia
Aug 07, 2012 08:47am
Very well written!
Myanmar Life
Aug 07, 2012 01:54pm
good job, your approach is reasonable and u pick good point.
Aug 07, 2012 01:16pm
Excellent Article !! 1.Cocktail of déjà vu and comparative analysis of water shed in two countries. 2.Social equations were same, somewhat different inputs/factors but results came out exactly the same. 3. I sincerely hope this article is well understood. 4. Reminds me of a time when i went to "Gurdwara" temple in Nankana sahab. I managed to get in there, thanks to my beard (though it was a rare instance that my beard helped me to get thorough security checks). Atmosphere and architecture (unlike what author observed) was overwhelming. But, when i was about to approach some priests there to speak about the building and its history, security officials realized i am a tourist. The literally shewed me away and one of them passed comments on me as if i were a "heretic".
Aug 07, 2012 11:45am
"A mundane one room building made of brick and mortar with no marked architecture and in rather dilapidated condition, that’s what it was" It speaks how other religion are living in Pakistan Thank you Mr. Tahir, at least you have tried to see the problem in a greater perspective. Every where the minority always live in hate and terror. Be it Chakmas of Chittagong Hill Tracts, Pandith of J & K , Ahamedia, Shia & other religious minority in Pakistan, they are always in danger. The Majority & the administration always sides with the majority. But I have one objection, how does Monks come in the picture?. Buddhist Monks, a symbol of compassion & kindness, barring very few exceptions, can never take sides with any aggressor or take weapon in their hand.
Aug 07, 2012 06:21am
I Agree with the writer, Rohingyas of Burma are being treated same as Hazaras in Quetta. Both being targeted for having different beliefs.
Aug 07, 2012 07:44am
excellent piece.... it amazes how similar the situation can be if viewed from a neutral perspective.... for my pakistani brethren, think its better they do something good for their own populace before pleading for support elsewhere for the rohingyas..
Aizaz Moin
Aug 07, 2012 07:53am
Please carry on writing such articles for PAKISTANI unity. 300 years under foreign rule is enough to change ANY mind set. Our great nation needs to be re-educated into considering us all as Pakistanis pure and simple First and foremost.
Aug 07, 2012 09:21am
Great work Tahir. It will be great to see few radicals becoming rational by reading your work. Special thanks to Dawn for creating a platform for people like Tahir, NFP others…. Who are trying to build a better Country.
World Citizen
Aug 07, 2012 09:40am
Yeah, you are right. Gujurat is a shining example!
b khosla
Aug 07, 2012 12:33pm
It is a big surprise! I find in the Pakistan Press, people write with sagacity and profound wisdom.
Aug 07, 2012 12:31pm
What a shame. No comparison. Nothing has happened in Pakistan where people have been denied citizenship on the basis of faith, neither destroyed the whole region and the population to get elsewhere.
Samir Bapat
Aug 07, 2012 01:47pm
an epic........simply gr8........
Manoj Khan
Aug 07, 2012 02:23pm
Tahir Mehdi, I thank You for writing such an eye opener. Thank You.
Aug 07, 2012 02:26pm
you have a wrong understanding. Its not 'blaspheme' in islam, it's blasphemous in certain hardline interpretations of islam.
Pavas Ambashta
Aug 07, 2012 02:32pm
Simply marvellous!! The parallels he drew between the two countries and the broader perspective of religion he thinks in are simply incredible!! Truly speaking I had least expected this kind of thinking from a Pakistani writer. From India, I congratulate the writer and Dawn for such an incredible article. Hope this kind of thinking may spread among the common people of Pakistan and India.
Aug 07, 2012 02:48pm
Do not agree with what is being said......I don't see mass migrations in Pakistan just because of religion. I would suggest that everyone watch the videos of muslims from Burma riding leaking boats and crossing over to Bangladesh (which by the way is not allowing them in)....This is not what is happening in Pakistan....The author is just trying to create a controversy here by comparing Pakistan......Do we see mass migrations of minorities out of pakistan....
Aug 07, 2012 03:13pm
Yes it's always amazing when parallels are drawn with Pakistan. Right?
Aug 07, 2012 03:15pm
yes it is easy to kill when people are gathered in one place rather than singling them. Did you not see the latest killing spree in Wisconsin Gurdwara?
Aug 07, 2012 03:16pm
And this is what's hurt the people most that we are capable of achieving anything just like any other but our own Govt is the hurdle.
Aug 07, 2012 04:24pm
conveniently filtered information to draw parallels, in nutshell
Aug 08, 2012 11:02am
Thumbs up for such a sincere article. The flow of the ideas is excellent and any reader wishes to flow along the theme. A very good article... thanks dear writer for penning down such a humanistic piece...
Aug 07, 2012 05:52pm
Every religious group, while perhaps a majority somewhere, is also inevitably a minority somewhere else. Thus, religious organizations should ... show tolerance toward members of other religious denominations. We fail at this terribly at home while asking for equity abroad. Everyone is guilty.
Aug 07, 2012 06:04pm
You really don't get it do you? The Rohingyas/Muslims are sitting on land that has Oil. The Hazaras on the other hand are sitting on dirt.
Aug 07, 2012 06:44pm
It can easily be know after reading this article how mullahs and military run and ruin this country more than 60 years. Welldone Tahir, we expect more analysis from you like this
Aug 07, 2012 11:04pm
Christians form 10% of Pakistan.
Aug 07, 2012 11:08pm
Surprize surprize! still open minded people like you reside in Pakistan?? but must be a rare commodity like the minorities in Pakistan! a very good and honest comparison, very well written, keep up the good your work and also watch your back, maybe talibans are wating you!
Aug 08, 2012 12:40am
Who is the lady in the picture? She looks like my sister that went missing in 1971 in Bangladesh! Please tell me who she is. My family and I have been praying and always wondered if she is still alive.
Aug 08, 2012 01:15am
Yes, you are right. No minority person has been denied Pakistani citizenship. But many have been denied their faith by forcefully and deceptively converting their daughters, many have been denied their religious places and many more have been denied their lives. Just look at the trend chart of % of minority populations in Pakistan after 1947. You will understand.
Aug 08, 2012 03:06am
I do not think you understood the essence of this article. The tone of your comment shows your ignorance.
Waqar Saleem
Aug 08, 2012 03:19am
You mean, there is a mosque in the Vatican?
Aug 08, 2012 03:33am
Tahir, Truth is o.k to talk about in abstract way but you are doing it concretely. It is dangerous. You know what is wrong with you "They say you are either born normal and boring or you are born a Punjabi Putar (son)". That is your problem.It is great and illuminating article. My congratulations and blessing. I still cannot believe it how our boys have become so intellegent. I see it in both sides of Punjab. My good wishes for you
Aug 08, 2012 04:18am
You forgot Gojra.
Aug 08, 2012 06:08am
yes and it shall take longer for pakistani media to broadcast such thing
Jehanzeb Idrees
Aug 08, 2012 06:24am
What a comparison between Gojra and Gujrat? Preposterous! What about Assam, did Mr. Tahir try to draw a more relevant comparison between Assamese Muslims and Rohingyas? Biased as always.
Aug 08, 2012 06:32am
Pl read history zubair ...unfortunately its true
sandeep thakur
Aug 08, 2012 07:29am
you are spot on , excellent article ,,,
Komail Abbas
Aug 08, 2012 08:11am
Gerry: I myself belong to a sect of Islam that is being targeted in Pakistan but it is not because of the religion it is because of the people. It is not Islam that gives the term 'blasphemy' on learning and reading about other faiths and religions. Islam is the epitome of religious tolerance but the people are at fault for taking everything to the extreme and presenting such a picture of Islam. Just because of some people we cannot term a religion as being extreme and intolerant. I believe even the Monks are very tolerant but what picture the Burmese monks are presenting to us shows something else. Saudis are a completely gone case, they are also responsible for spreading extremism throughout Pakistan. I hope you understand brother what I intend to say. Love Amazing Article anyways portrays the perfect picture of whats happening/happened in Pakistan...
Khalid Yusuf
Aug 08, 2012 08:24am
thye must be compensated, direct your efforts to compensate the familiies rather than big stories.
A Human being
Aug 08, 2012 10:09am
Allah bless you to write many more similar articles, EXCELLENT work. There are very few in the world who knows anything about Rohingyas in Myanmar because Muslim world do not have media power and west are not intrested in any muslims being killed and for western media it is one muslim less and they are happy. The world rich want mineral resources and they do not care how it some and who is being killed. It happens in every cornor of the world kill the poor and fill the rich, give them peanuts and take the wealth. This will happen even more and will only end with the end of the world. Please remember this world is only a trailer and the acutal movie will come after the end of this world. For poor pradise is more nearer, pray for forgiveness and do good in this world and bear your pains it will have better result as this world is an eximination. God bless you all.
Aug 08, 2012 11:26am
Jawwad, rather than defending and being emotional, please understand logic an humanity. It is no personal attack but reality shown by a logical author.
Aug 08, 2012 12:50pm
Amazing article! I personally have no interest in Myanmar but was thoroughly absorbed by your beautiful and purposeful writing. Spot on analysis! Sad but true. I sincerely hope this generation of Pakistanis can save our beloved country. We need more Tahir Mehdis!
Aug 08, 2012 02:50pm
an objective, rational and researched article should always be appriciated
Aug 08, 2012 04:48pm
Leaving Pakistan 12 years ago and inter-acting with people of Indian origin in North America, I came to know that how much we are alike. Also, how we think alike in most of the matters. My elders tell me how the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were living in quite an harmony in the villages and towns before the partition. Pavas this kind of thinking exists in Pakistan in the same way as in India; only you are not aware of it. Similarly hate and the animosity feeling exists in India against Pakistan same as it exists in Pakistan. The people who want to hold on to religious and political power in both countries, unfortunately have the actual power also and thus control the thoughts through media, educational curriculum etc...and thus true feelings and thoughts of common masses do not come into much light.
Aug 08, 2012 08:10pm
He should have compared it. It is exact same problem.
Khalq e Khuda
Aug 09, 2012 02:58am
Actually the Vatican has expressed the need to build a mosque in Vatican for Muslim envoys and visitors. Not sure if the plan has been implemented yet.
Aug 09, 2012 06:28am
My dear Zubair, perhaps you do not know Pakistan and you live in Defence schemes somewhere in Karachi or F7 markaz of Islamabad.
Irfan Yahya
Aug 10, 2012 01:57pm
where were the courts & state of India when Babri masjid was being demolished Hindus? when Muslims massacre in Gujrat were underway by Hindus besides looted & burnt their properties? when massacre of muslims took place in Asaam? Indeed the extremist Hindu state was involved in all incidents. so we should compare Burma with India, where the brutality against Muslims are taking place under states umbrella. For your information Govt. of Pakistan doesn't involved or support any kind of terrorism, neither sectarian nor against minorities.
irfan yahya
Aug 10, 2012 02:08pm
Mr. Tahir, it would be better if you compare Burma with India, where the brutality against Muslims are taking place under states umbrella. it would be better if you included incidents of demolishion of Babri masjid by Hindus. The massacre of Muslims in Gujrat were underway by Hindus besides looted & burnt their properties. when massacre of muslims took place in Asaam. Indeed the extremist Hindu state was involved in all incidents. Remembering that Govt. of Pakistan doesn't involved or support any kind of terrorism, neither sectarian nor against minorities. It is totally unfair to draw the case of Burma as sectarian unrest. Its genocide of Muslims by the military, religious groups (Budhists) & the goverment. Hope that Mr. Tahir will write on these as well.
P N Eswaran
Aug 10, 2012 02:24pm
Congratulations Tahir.Great Article! You went wrong in the last sentence. "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." It would be appropriate to replace the word Mandir with Mosque. You have forgotten what the lesson preached by the priest in the small mandir. In mandirs souls are tended not suicide bombers.
Aug 14, 2012 12:25am
Now only if we could find people like that in India! we can only wish!
Aug 14, 2012 12:33am
Narrow minded people reside on both sides of the border (you present yourself as a good example of an ignorant indian) and so do broad-minded enlightened people.
Aug 15, 2012 08:21pm
great analysis Mr. Irfan. Bravo!!!
Vijay Dixit
Aug 19, 2012 09:44am
Never expected such a liberal writing from the chest thumping Pakistanis claiming to be the foot soldiers of Islam.Keep on surprising us.
Aug 18, 2012 09:00pm
oh please, no more muslim victim stories. they are sounding planned now
Aug 23, 2012 05:09am
Excellent article. Very well written. You have said alot in a small article by drawing such amazing parallels.