A Buddhist-Muslim Dialogue on the theme ‘Buddhists and Muslims in Southeast Asia working towards justice and peace’ was held at the Suan Dusit Place of Suan Dusit Rajabhat University, Bangkok from 26-28 June 2006. It was organised jointly by the Santi Pracha Dhamma Institute (SPDI), International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) and International Movement for a Just World (JUST).
A total of 35 participants from eight countries attended the three-day Dialogue. Most of the participants were Buddhists and Muslims from Southeast Asia. A number of them were socially-engaged scholars and grassroots activists.
The Dialogue was part of a continuous process of interaction and engagement among individuals from the two communities that had begun ten years ago. Since Buddhists and Muslims constitute the overwhelming majority of Southeast Asia’s 550 million people, dialogue aimed at enhancing understanding and empathy between the two communities is vital for peace and harmony in the region. In view of the critical situation in Southern Thailand, the Dialogue on this occasion assumed special significance. Apart from Southern Thailand, the Dialogue also reflected upon issues of concern pertaining to the two communities in a number of other Southeast Asian countries.
The Dialogue observed that for most of history relations between Buddhists and Muslims have been relatively harmonious. This has been due largely to a certain degree of mutual respect and a willingness to accommodate differences. This historical backdrop should provide the two communities with the strength and resilience to overcome the challenges that confront them today.
In order to overcome these challenges, the Dialogue made the following proposals:
- Civil society groups should utilise to the fullest various information and communication channels with the aim of increasing knowledge and understanding among Buddhists and Muslims of the principal teachings of their respective religions. Towards this end, SPDI, INEB and JUST undertake to produce a series of monographs in all the Southeast Asian languages which will emphasise the fundamental values and principles in Buddhism and Islam that give meaning to justice and peace. An attempt will also be made to disseminate documentaries on inter-religious harmony that embody real life episodes through various local communication channels as well as via webcasting, podcasting and broadcasting.
- The mainstream print and electronic media should highlight those moral values and ethical standards that Buddhism and Islam share in common, and at the same time explain differences in doctrines and rituals with sensitivity. It should also regard it as a duty to eradicate stereotypes and prejudices about the two religions. The media should not aggravate inter-religious ties by distorting and sensationalising events that have implications for religious harmony. In this regard, the media should not allow itself to be manipulated by opportunistic politicians and public personalities who abuse religion and nationalism for their own agendas. Civil society groups should establish ‘media watches’ to monitor media reporting on matters pertaining to inter-religious ties.
- Schools and universities should introduce and expand courses that seek to promote better understanding between Buddhists and Muslims. Since both religions are committed to justice and peace, it would be worthwhile to increase peace studies programmes at all levels of formal education which focus on non-violence in conflict resolution. School and university curricula should not contain materials which create animosity and perpetuate prejudice between religious and ethnic communities. Civil society groups can help to initiate the development of curricula that reflect Buddhism’s and Islam’s concern for justice and peace. At the same time, they should monitor school and university curricula to ensure that they do not have a negative impact on inter-religious ties.
- Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders should within the context of their respective faiths emphasise those ideas and values which conduce towards inter-religious harmony and the celebration of our common humanity. They should discard the tendency to be exclusive in their outlook and consciously cultivate a more inclusive and universal orientation towards religion. Differences between the two religions should not be allowed to create cleavages between their followers. Buddhist monks and the ulama should work together to eliminate prejudices, hatreds and misconceptions that sometimes tend to separate the two communities. Both should adopt a principled position against violence, especially the killing of civilians, and the destruction of places of worship regardless of who or what the target is. In this connection, civil society groups should engage with religious leaders in order to encourage them to become more inclusive and universal in outlook and more positively orientated towards justice and peace.
- Government leaders and politicians should consciously nurture harmonious relations between Buddhists and Muslims and among people of other faiths through both their public pronouncements and policies. It would be utterly irresponsible of government leaders and politicians to exploit religious sentiments for narrow political gain. They should instead initiate meaningful reforms to existing political structures which would protect and strengthen the rights and dignity of the different religious communities. In certain situations it may even be necessary to devolve political authority through the empowerment of disenfranchised religious communities. To endow substance to the empowerment of the community, government and political leaders should adhere to moral principles such as transparency and accountability. Civil society and the media should not hesitate to expose irresponsible leaders who divide the followers of different religions in pursuit of their self-serving political agendas.
Apart from looking at the challenges facing Buddhists and Muslims in Southeast Asia as a whole, the Dialogue also addressed immediate and urgent issues obtaining in specific country situations. The focus was of course on Southern Thailand.
- In the case of Myanmar, there was concern over attempts by the government to control religious activities to the detriment of the communities in question. The state itself appears to be a purveyor of prejudice against certain religious communities. In Indonesia, the adverse socio-economic and socio-political situation has had a negative impact upon inter-religious relations. Unethical methods of proselytisation by groups within a particular religious community allegedly supported by foreign elements have led to a further deterioration in majority-minority ties. There is also a need for the Malaysian state to be more sensitive to some of the legitimate interests of its non-Muslim minorities.
- The Dialogue was of the view that the recommendations of the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) established to study the situation in Southern Thailand deserve the wholehearted support of the nation. It is significant that the NRC declared in unambiguous terms that religion is not the cause of the violence in the South. Injustices arising from the existing judicial process and administrative system and poverty and deprivation are more important contributory factors. Historical and cultural conditions have also played a role in prodding militants to resort to violence which has been met with excessive force by the state. The NRC recommends a whole gamut of measures to overcome the violence. Among them is the establishment of a Peaceful Strategic Administrative Center for Southern Border Provinces (PSAC) which inter alia would seek to promote understanding of the situation and methods to solve the problem in all government agencies among people in the region in Thai society at large and in the international community. There is also a proposal for the state to engage in dialogue with the militants and to act decisively against state officials who abuse their power. There are also other recommendations for solving the unemployment problem, building confidence in the judicial process and improving the education system.
- The Dialogue also proposed that civil society undertake to ascertain the sentiments of the people in the three troubled provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala about the form of local governance that they prefer. A petition with at least 50,000 signatures on the form of governance they opt for should then be presented to Parliament for deliberation. This would be in accordance with the Thai Constitution and would reflect the democratic will of the people of the three provinces.
- Monks and the ulama and Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders in general in the three provinces should make a concerted effort to break down barriers that have created a wide chasm between Buddhists and Muslims and instead build bridges of understanding between the two communities. This process would require honest and sincere introspection on the part of the religious leaders and others about their own flaws and foibles. Critical self analysis should go hand-in-hand with Buddhist-Muslim dialogue in the three Southern provinces.
- INEB and other NGOs should initiate efforts to form a “People’s Watch” comprising both Buddhists and Muslims drawn from various sectors of society whose primary purpose would be to protect and safeguard places of worship, institutions of learning and hospitals among other public institutions. A “People’s Watch” would not only ensure the safety and security of these institutions but more significantly, it would also help foster a spirit of togetherness among Buddhists and Muslims.
- Both Buddhists and Muslims from neighbouring countries especially those representing the influential strata in religion, politics and the media should assist in whatever way possible in the process of dialogue and reconciliation in southern Thailand. More specifically they should try to strengthen a more inclusive and universal approach to both religions informed by values of justice, compassion and forgiveness
Enhancing understanding and empathy between Buddhists and Muslims in Southeast Asia has become imperative in view of the overwhelming power and influence of contemporary global capitalism rooted in global hegemony. The hegemonic power of global capitalism is the new ‘religion’ which threatens to undermine the universal, spiritual and moral values and world views embodied in Buddhism, Islam and other religions. This is why Buddhists, Muslims and others should forge a more profound unity and solidarity which will be able to offer another vision of a just, compassionate and humane universal civilization.
It is with this mission in mind that we hereby announce the launch of a permanent Buddhist-Muslim Citizens’ Commission for Southeast Asia.