Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

More rioting between Buddhist and Muslim groups erupted in Myanmar early this month, killing two people and injuring 14 others. The fatalities included a young Buddhist man who was riding a bike and a Muslim bicycle shop owner. The riots – which took place over four days in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city – were triggered by an unverified online story about an alleged raping of a Buddhist employee by her Muslim employers in a tea shop.

In contrast to their sluggish response in the past, the police were quick to act and restore order. About 362 rioters were arrested and a curfew imposed.

Speculation is rife that the riots were deliberately planned to sow panic and distract public attention. Just a few hours before the riots broke out, the Young Buddhists Association warned of a plot to provoke violence in the country. “We received news that the instigators who want to create religion or race-based violence are planning to inflame [the situation] on the Internet’s social networks and across the country.”

The London-based Burmese Muslim Association described the violent conflict as a “well-planned operation, carried out by a group of well-trained thugs.”

“Since 1 July 2014, a van and a group of about 30 motorbikes, carrying mobs armed with machetes and lethal weapons, were roaming around the city of Mandalay and targeting various Muslims, shops and businesses owned by Muslims, and a number of Islamic religious institutions and premises,” the group said in a statement.

Thein Win Aung, vice chairman of a peace group which was initiated by religious leaders and residents right after the clashes in Mandalay, suspected that the riot could be a “political trick” to stop people from supporting the 436 campaign which aims to amend the country’s military-backed constitution. “If we do not understand these political tricks, if we do not control each other, if we allow ourselves to fall into the trap, then not only Mandalay, but the entire country, will be consumed in the flames of chaos.”

Indeed, the riots have discouraged many people from actively discussing the campaign for constitutional reforms, which is a major political initiative of the opposition led by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

But the riots could also mean that religious extremism continues to strengthen its grip on the country. Recent years have seen a surge in anti-Muslim sentiment among the Burmese, majority of whom are Buddhist. Some Buddhist leaders have been openly attacking the Muslim community for conspiring to dominate Myanmar.

Unfortunately, those who share these feelings have been effectively using the Internet, particularly the popular social networking site Facebook, to incite more hatred against the Muslims. This led Burmese American author Kenneth Wong to ask netizens to be more responsible when using the Internet. “In today’s tinderbox environment of Burma, it only takes one irresponsible news story and a few thousand mouse clicks on Facebook to set Mandalay or any other major city ablaze.”

The government quickly ordered the blocking of Facebook during the riots to prevent the dissemination of hate speech. Myanmar Chief Police Officer Win Kaung admitted in an interview with the Irrawaddy magazine that blocking Facebook was necessary to stop the violence. “Yes, we blocked it. We wanted to stop the instigation. When they are doing the instigation or spreading the unverified news, this could only provoke the underlying hatred between different groups or people; one’s own word or line could lead to a bigger conflict.”

There were mixed reactions to the blocking of Facebook. Some supported it while others were concerned about its impact on the country’s efforts to improve the state of free speech. Today, Facebook was blocked to stop rioting but will the police adopt the same measure to quell anti-government protests in the future?

Also troubling was the reported threats made by the mob against journalists and news agencies covering the riot. These threats appeared to dissuade journalists from documenting the full impact of the riots in Mandalay.

Myanmar’s transition to democracy cannot succeed without serious efforts to promote interfaith harmony. The Mandalay riots should serve as a timely reminder to all stakeholders, including the global community, that Myanmar is undergoing a turbulent transition and the country requires more than just political and constitutional reforms.

Singapore Library Bans Books That Feature LGBT Families

Written for The Diplomat

Singapore’s National Library Board (NLB) has banned and destroyed copies of three children’s books that deal with same-sex couples and adoption after it received a complaint that the books are not “pro-family.”

NLB removed the books And Tango Makes Three, Who’s In Your Family, and The White Swan Express from the children’s section after a visitor questioned the appropriateness of including the three books in the library. The chief librarian at the NLB quickly responded by assuring the complainant that “NLB takes a strong pro-family stand in selecting books.”

Dr. Justin Richardson, one of the authors of And Tango Makes Three, told The Online Citizen in an interview that NLB’s action has sent a “chilling message about the government’s attitude toward the freedom of expression in general and toward gay and lesbian people in particular.” The book is based on a true story of two male penguins who raised a baby penguin as their own at the New York Central Park Zoo. Meanwhile, the two other banned books also featured stories about non-traditional couples and families.

NLB’s decision to ban the books was met with fierce reactions from the reading public, especially mothers and academics. Many Singaporean authors have publicly criticized the NLB for allowing itself to be bullied by a “conservative minority.” Some of them have already boycotted recent literary events sponsored by the NLB. Last Sunday, more than 400 people gathered in front of the NLB to participate in a public reading event to protest. They also distributed copies of the banned books.

But NLB found support from Yaacob Ibrahim, Singapore’s minister of Communications and Information, who reminded the critics that public libraries exist to give consideration to community norms.

“The prevailing norms, which the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans accept, support teaching children about conventional families, but not about alternative, non-traditional families, which is what the books in question are about,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

The issue has highlighted the continuing confrontation between conservative forces and an emergent community that accepts the gay community and advocates for LGBT rights.

Before the NLB issue, the most recent clash was just a few weeks ago during Singapore’s annual Pink Dot celebration. This year’s event attracted more than 26,000 people, the largest Pink Dot since the first in 2009. But this year was also the first time that religious groups openly and actively opposed the Pink Dot by urging people to wear white on the same day.

While the LGBT community and their supporters assembled at Singapore’s freedom park to celebrate love, tolerance and diversity, about 6,000 Christians participated in a “family worship” in opposition to the principles espoused by Pink Dot. They were joined by prominent Islamic educators who initiated the #WearWhite campaign to rally Muslims against homosexuality and to reverse the “normalization of LGBT in Singapore.” Even Catholic Archbishop William Goh issued a pastoral letter criticizing the LGBT lifestyle as “detrimental to society.”

But more solid proof of the continuing marginalization of the LGBT is reflected in the country’s laws, like the notorious Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalizes male homosexual acts.

The LGBT community continues to grow in Singapore but there are still powerful conservative forces that are vehemently opposed to the mainstreaming and even existence of the LGBT sector. The NLB issue has clearly demonstrated the clout of this conservative bloc.

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