YANGON — Musmeah Yeshua is the last surviving synagogue in Myanmar. The synagogue has stood in the centre of downtown Yangon for more than 100 years. At its height, it served a community of some 2,500 Jews.
But a recent rise in tourism has put the synagogue back on the map.
“People from Germany and Europe are amazed to know that there was a synagogue in a country like Myanmar. We are proud of it,” boasts Sammy Samuels, a spokesperson for Musmeah Yeshua.
The 120-year-old synagogue is nestled between Indian paint shops and Muslim trader stalls at the corner of 26th Street. Just a few years ago there was virtually no one here.
Yangon's 26th Street — Photo: Esme Vos
But thanks to a recent rise in tourism into the country, the synagogue has become one of the top tourist attractions in Yangon, the former capital of the country once known as Burma, and today referred to as Myanmar. “In the past, if there were 4 to 5 visitors, it was a busy day," says Samuels. "But now there are 50 to 60 visitors a day.
The synagogue is one of 188 archaeological heritage buildings in the city. And it’s in possession of two ancient leather-bound Torah scrolls. An immigrant Jewish community started to arrive in Burma in around 1850. They were merchants exporting rice and teak to the Middle East and India. Trade boomed, and a decade later Yangon had a major Sephardic Jewish community of about 2,500 people.
Hub and symbol
During Japanese occupation in the Second World War, most of the Jewish community fled. Now there are only about 20 Jewish people in the whole country.
“It’s a Jewish life that doesn’t exist any longer, you know," notes one visitor named Danny Eyal. "There’s only the owner here, and some other guys — and that’s all. Five people and that’s all. So on the one hand, it’s sad, as the Jewish community is no longer. But on the other I’m happy to see how it has been preserved.”
Photo: Esme Vos
The synagogue is still a hub in the community. It holds intercultural meetings and festivals throughout the year, attracting people of all religions, Sammy Samuels says. “There used to be only Jewish people visiting the venue but now we receive Muslims, Christians, Japanese and Chinese — pretty much everyone!”
Among the Jews from around the world who come to pray are Jeffery and Norman from London. “We’ve met people from Israel and America and London who have also come along because they know there’s a synagogue. And just to try and keep it alive."
Samuel’s family has been looking after the synagogue for generations. “For our family, the synagogue is very important. My grandfather asked my father to promise to take care of the synagogue as long as he lives. If the synagogue closes, nobody will know about the Jewish religion.”
At a time when religious tensions in Myanmar are high and outbreaks of violence are continuing throughout the country, the synagogue stands as a symbol that people from all religions can come together in peaceful coexistence.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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