The Civil War inside Buddhism caused Ethnic Cleansing of Muslims

Paul Fuller | (The Conversation) | – –

There is a desperate humanitarian crisis underway in Myanmar, centring around the Rohingya Muslims.

There is what has been described as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing” against the approximately one million Rohingya who live in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine. As well as retaliations from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army – a militant group of Rohingyas – which has been held by the Burmese military to have attacked a number of police and army posts.

And there is also what was seen as a newly emerging democracy with a prominent international figure, Aung San Suu Kyi – the state counsellor of Myanmar and the nation’s de facto leader – guiding the country against a backdrop of Islamophobic Buddhist nationalism.

Buddhists are often regarded in the West as a peaceful people, so to hear of this kind of public prejudice may come as a shock to many. But looking at it from a Buddhist cultural perspective, one can begin to see why this is happening.

Militant Buddhism

Suu Kyi has used her own Buddhist faith to explain her ideas in the past. But it was only in a televised speech to the Burmese nation, in mid-October 2017, that she used some standard Buddhist rhetoric for the first time in her comments on recent events. Suu Kyi evoked the Buddhist principles of “compassion”, “loving-kindness” and “sympathetic joy” to overcome hatred. A “close adviser” later briefed the media, explaining that Suu Kyi’s speech marked an attempt to wrestle Buddhism out of the “hands of extremists”.

One could say that the Buddhist sentiments expressed in Suu Kyi’s speech are in line with the modern Western understanding of Buddhism. But look deeper into modern Asia and you will see Western perceptions aren’t wholly accurate. There is now a form of militant Buddhism, which often promotes the supremacy of Buddhism, and can be Islamophobic, ethnocentric and chauvinistic in its preaching.

This is a Buddhism alien to the romantic, pacifistic, meditative and compassionate Buddhism of popular imagination, and – one would hope – much of Buddhist history. It is a Buddhism in which the Buddhist faith should be protected against the supposed threat of other religions (primarily Islam) overrunning Buddhist Myanmar.

Led by the Mandalay-based monk Ashin Wirathu, it is a religion which campaigns to punish those who offend Buddhism. In its organised form in Myanmar these nationalistic Buddhist ideas coalesce around a group popularly known as MaBaTha – the organisation for the protection of race and religion.

Religious core

The battle between the two emerging forms of Buddhism in modern Myanmar is linked back to two core principles of the religion.

The first is the familiar Buddhism of calm, non-attachment, and compassion. Until recently one could say this was dominant within Myanmar. Lay meditation movements were important in the revitalisation of modern Buddhism and aspects of popular mindfulness meditation originate from them. The Saffron Revolution of 2007 displayed little of the aggressive nationalism of the MaBaTha movement, with monks evoking the “discourse on loving-kindness” – The Metta-sutta – as a Buddhist path of compassion to overthrow military rule.

The other form of Buddhism has a more ritualised focus. At the risk of oversimplification, this practice is based upon the performance of personal and state rituals in order to protect society from danger. To be a practising Buddhist is to have recited certain texts, and to have paid homage at Buddhist shrines. To be a good Buddhist is to be a good Burmese, and, as it now appears, to “stand with Aung San Suu Kyi”.

It would be too simplistic to argue that Buddhist teachings are irreconcilably at odds with ideas of nationalism and patriotism. However, a sense of superiority and discrimination against minority groups does appear to be indefensible from a Buddhist perspective. Could Suu Kyi’s speech, and the idea that she wishes to use Buddhist teachings in a way at odds with Buddhist nationalism be an acknowledgement that Buddhism needs to become part of the solution in modern Myanmar, rather than an aggressive symbol used by Buddhist nationalists?

If Myanmar is to emerge from military rule and become a modern democratic state then it must save its Buddhism from descending into extremism. If Buddhist identity is focused upon a narrow and uncompromising view of what it means to be Burmese, then it seems likely that Buddhism will become a form of state-sponsored religion promoted by the military. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this type of Buddhism, but it is clearly engendering a form of nationalistic fervour, and atrocities are being committed and justified.

The ConversationCan Suu Kyi see beyond the flags and slogans and use Buddhist narratives of compassion and loving kindness? Observers expected this of her, and of the Buddhist nation, many weeks ago, yet we are still waiting.

Paul Fuller, Lecturer in Buddhist Studies, Cardiff University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Rohingya crisis: ‘Rape and murder’ in the Village of Tula Toli – BBC News

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7 Responses

  1. Buddhism has always been a religion of peace, compassion, and tolerance. But like many other religions, it has been poisoned by extremists, who many suspect are doing the bidding of foreign entities, with their own devious agenda.
    Sri Lanka also a Buddhist nation, is also contending with tensions between the majority Buddhists (70 percent) and the Muslims (9 percent). Strangely the same propaganda being spread in Myanmar, has been used to cause fear and suspicion among the Buddhists in Sri Lanka, the same false stories of Muslims taking over the country (statistically impossible), Muslims converting Buddhist women, and that the candy given free at Muslim shops make Buddhist women barren.
    These far fetched stories are believed by the uneducated, and the racists, turning them against the minority.
    This could mean the same evil forces behind this organized anti Muslim campaign are behind both nations. Both Myanmar and Sri Lankan campaigns were started, and these lies spread, by terrorist Buddhist monks, who make hate speeches, lead the mobs, and attack Muslim shops, Mosques, and homes. In both nations the Buddhist leaders say and do NOTHING to stop the murders, attacks, and harassment of the minority.
    Suu Kyi does not utter one word of condemnation either.
    So far, the problem in Sri Lanka is minor compared to Myanmar.

    Why are the western nations that condemn the massacre in Myanmar not condemning Israel and other nations for selling the weapons that kill these innocent civilians, and used to threaten, rape, and kill babies? Israel must have trained this brutal military to use the weapons they sell. Where there is trouble around the world, you will find the fingerprints of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia, or the US.
    Unlike the Muslims, all Buddhists are not deemed violent, and their religion deemed “evil”, despite the massacre, rape, and violence, against unarmed civilians by extremists, which is how it should be.

    • Agree on the whole. However, I do feel these feelings of hate and irrational fears amongst Buddhist fundamentalists and nationalists didn’t totally develop in a vacuum.

      I always believed the Taliban in Afghanistan may have in a sense contributed to the rise of extreme Buddhist fundamentalism and nationalism as well. In a sense, what they did lead to bad karma for other Muslim populations.

      When they deliberately attacked and bombed the historic Buddha statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001, months before 9/11, which were really remarkably untouched during all those years of civil war, but then destroyed based on extreme Sunni Deoband Muslim fundamentalism, I think it kind of raised the sense of threat of most Buddhist populations across the globe of how their civilization was wiped out (and unfortunately this act was received with mixed reactions amongst Muslims, most indifferent, some condemning, and some supporting, whether Islamic or not).

      You kind of hear some anti-Muslim folks everywhere, including some local right-wing Asian Buddhists propagating about the ‘Muslim scourge’ that destroyed past civilizations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not a bit different than how some Hindu nationalists frame all Muslim migrations as invasion of India.

      But regardless. The ethnic/religious cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims is a real crisis, with worse and worse news coming out like the mass rapes reported recently. Probably should never have pinned hopes on Suu Kyi who probably always was an illiberal religious and ethnic supremacist that folks didn’t seem to realize and confused her want for human democratic rights for the majority against militarism with liberalism and minority rights. Not a surprise there are more democracies now…which are illiberal.

  2. Aung San Suu Kyi harbors her own racist views regarding the Rohingya, believing them to have no role to play or proper place in modern Myanmar. This has been her view for a long time. There is not enough international will to confront Myanmar and move it further into China’s embrace.

  3. More than 50 years ago I visited Rangoon in (then) Burma. While at the Golden Temple, I saw a man accidentally bump a Buddhist monk. The monk turned angrily and commenced beating the man with a stick, while the man just cowered and took it. I was shocked to realize that there was this streak of human anger and aggression in some Buddhists. The current ethnic cleansing campaign and Suu Kii’s failure to address it are , therefore , not a complete surprise.

  4. My experience, Christians in Myanmar (there are more of them than you might be thinking) share the exact same prejudice and hostility toward Muslims.

  5. Buddhism begs to be used in this way by the people who use it this way. From this we learn something about people, and something about Buddhism. Not good things in either case, malgré all the special pleading.

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