Religion & Philosophy

Burma’s buddhists determined to de-romanticize Buddhism for West

Burma — from its president to its Nobel laureate — has failed to address Buddhist violence in its Rakhine state against Muslim Rohingyas.

Monks with gunsDoes any religion in the world have a cleaner rep than Buddhism? With much of its efforts devoted to helping one realizing the divinity within him or her, it’s disinclined to repressive morality or proselytizing. More to the point, much less violence is committed in its name than that of the other great religions. The operative word is “less.”

For instance, Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka committed violence against Christians and Tamils. Even worse, during World War II, the Buddhist establishment — even Zen — cooperated, for the most part, with the militaristic Japanese regime. For more, read Buddhist Warfare (Oxford University Press, 2010) by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer.

Recently Burmese Buddhists — incited by monks, no less — have been conducting violent attacks against the Muslim Rohingyas with whom they share the Rakhine district, which borders Sri Lanka, from where the latter emigrate. Robert Fuller reports for the New York Times.

The Buddhist monastery on the edge of this seaside town is a picture of tranquillity, with novice monks in saffron robes finding shade under a towering tree and their teacher, U Nyarna, greeting a visitor in a sunlit prayer room.

But in these placid surroundings Mr. Nyarna’s message is discordant, and a far cry from the Buddhist precept of avoiding harm to living creatures. Unprompted, Mr. Nyarna launches into a rant against Muslims, calling them invaders, unwanted guests and “vipers in our laps.”

“According to Buddhist teachings we should not kill,” Mr. Nyarna said. “But when we feel threatened we cannot be saints.”

As if, Mr. Nyarna, there isn’t a world of difference between simply not being a saint and advocating ethnic cleansing. Earlier this month, at Reuters, Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall detailed some of the violence.

Tuesday [October 22] began with a massacre. … By 7 a.m. … hundreds of Rakhine arrived on boats to surround [the village of] Yin Thei, said a resident contacted by telephone. By late afternoon, the Muslim villagers were fending off waves of attacks. The resident said children, including two of his young cousins, were killed by sword-wielding Rakhines. Most houses were burned down. … A Yin Thei villager telephoned Musi Dula’s neighbours and said police were shooting at them. Another farmer nervously told Reuters how he watched from afar as police opened fire from the village’s western edge, also at about 5 p.m.

The official death toll is five Rakhines and 51 Muslims killed at Yin Thei, including 21 Muslim women, said a senior police officer in Naypyitaw, the new capital of Myanmar. He denied security forces opened fire or abetted the mobs. … As Yin Thei burned, the last of nearly 4,000 Rohingya Muslims were fleeing the large port town of Pauktaw, in a dramatic exodus by sea that had begun five days earlier.

Returning to the Times article, Fuller writes, “the country’s leading liberal voice and defender of the downtrodden, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been circumspect in her comments about the violence.” For their part, Szep and Marshall write that Suu Kyi’s “studied neutrality has failed to defuse tensions and risks undermining her image as a unifying moral force. Suu Kyi, a devout Buddhist, says she refuses to take sides.” [Emphasis added.]

Besides that she’s a Buddhist, how does she justify her silence? Seasoned Burma watcher and activist Roland Watson speculates. In April of this year he wrote:

It is difficult to fathom her actions, but a number of explanations are possible, including: She didn’t know how bad the Tatmadaw [Burma’s army] was treating the ethnic groups; … she censored herself; she thinks the problems that the ethnic nationalities have are their own fault (as many Burmans [the majority ethnic group] believe) … or, she noticed that since the international community ignored the atrocities it was safe for her to do so as well. (Of note, the United States, her close advisor, for two decades only backed her and refused to acknowlede the regime’s war crimes.)

During his recent visit, writes Fuller, President Obama at least made a nod to violence against the Rohingyas.

Mr. Obama spent a considerable portion of a speech at Yangon University focusing on the importance of diversity, singling out the “danger” of the Rakhine situation and telling his audience “there is no excuse for violence against innocent people.”

But (Fuller again), like Suu Kyi, Burma’s President Thein Sein keeps the issue at arms length.

… President Thein Sein told a visiting delegation from the United Nations in July that only Muslims who have been in the country for at least three generations would be allowed citizenship. The rest were a “threat to the peace of the nation,” he said, and would be put in camps and sent abroad. The United Nations rejected the idea, saying that it was not in the business of creating refugees.

Diplomats say that Mr. Thein Sein has retreated from that position and is now talking about resettling displaced Muslim populations inside the country. He sent a letter to the United Nations just before Mr. Obama’s visit saying that once passions cooled he would “address contentious political dimensions, ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship.” But he offered no details or time frame.

Let’s return to Mr. Nyarna, who has a talent for putting his foot in his mouth, who said

… many Muslims do not “practice human morals” and should be sent to Muslim countries to be among “their own kind.”

Clearly, even some Buddhists need a refresher course in “human morals.”

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

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21 replies »

  1. All Religions have people who claim to be members of that Religion but do not truly follow the tenets of that religion. In fact it is debatable whether even the Buddha was continuously perfect.

    Buddhism does stress a more peaceful approach then others as shown by the Dali Lama and Buddhism was virtually wiped out in India and now may be almost wiped out in China.

    Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are much more difficult to wipe out. Whether this is a virtue or a problem with Buddhism is debatable as no religions group wants to be destroyed.

  2. Burma is a very poor country. These poor people are not well educated. The country is in a bad condition with little opportunities for poor people. There are no jobs for young men and women to earn their living. Those men that become monks are not necessarily religious. They become monk so that they have a place to live and food to eat. In the morning in Rangoon streets, you can see monks walk in a line to collect food from people. They visit different day to different street ie. they have collection rota. They are not self sufficient so they rely on people to donate food and may be money too. I was approach by a monk, he asked me to donate him $20.
    In the article it mentioned,’Clearly, even some Buddhists need a refresher course in “human morals.”’ I agree, Burmese people including their government need education on morality.

  3. The threat of Islamic colonization in burma can’t be neglected under the cry of human rifts while the jihadists are well swamping the south east Asia to bridge with other parts of the Islamic world.

  4. A Buddhist monastery is like a hospital for the mind. Is it a surprise to find sick minds there? The real myth here is the saint vs sinner Christian projection onto other religions. This results in many Westerners assuming that a professed Buddhist is either ‘perfect” or a holier than thou hypocrite. This is nonsense. Religious paths and organizations are as samsaric as anything else down here in the mud.

  5. The Writer has the notion that Buddhists should hold the door open to robbers and rapists. Those are not Buddhists, they are called idiots. The Rakhines have as much right as anyone to resist those that attempt to grab their land or trample their culture. And they don’t need to dance to the tune played by the West.

    • No one in the right mind wants to migrate to Burma or Rakhine state to live there. In fact people from Burma are migrating to other countries to have a better life. These muslims are living there for years whether Buddhists like them or not.

      Below is a history lesson for you. If want to know more google it.

      The Kingdom of Mrauk-U was the kingdom that ruled Arakan from 1429 to 1785.[1]

      King Narameikhla (1404-1434), or Min Saw Mon, ruler of the Kingdom of Mrauk U in the early 15th century, after 24 years of exile in Bengal, regained control of the Arakanese throne in 1430 with military assistance from the Sultanate of Bengal. The Bengalis who came with him formed their own settlements in the region.[2] Narameikhla ceded some territory to the Sultan of Bengal and recognized his sovoreignity over the areas. In recognition of his kingdom’s vassal status, the kings of Arakan received Islamic titles, despite being Buddhists, and legalized the use of Islamic coins from Bengal within the kingdom. Narameikhla minted his own coins with Burmese characters on one side and Persian characters on the other. Arakan remained subordinate to Bengal up until 1531.[2]

      Even after gaining independence from the Sultans of Bengal, the Arakanese kings continued the custom of maintaining Muslim titles.[3] The kings compared themselves to Sultans and fashioned themselves after Mughal rulers, despite remaining Buddhist. They also continued to employ Muslims in prestigious positions within the royal administration.[4] From 1531-1629, Portuguese pirates operated from havens along the coast of the kingdom and brought slaves in from Bengal to the kingdom. The Bengali Muslim population thus increased in the 17th century, as they were employed in a variety of workforces in Arakan. Some of them worked as Arabic, Bengali, and Persian scribes in the Arakanese courts, which, despite remaining mostly Buddhist, adopted Islamic fashions from the neighbouring Sultanate of Bengal.

    • It was alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by muslim men. Was there DNA taken and proved that these men commited the crime? I think not. Was there any evidence taken at crime sence so that forensic psychologists from the west could determine who were the crimnials? This problem could be easily solved if people from Burma have education.

      • It meant to say ‘forensic pathologist’.

        It was alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by muslim men. Was there DNA taken and proved that these men commited the crime? I think not. Was there any evidence taken at crime sence so that forensic pathologists from the west could help determine who were the crimnials? This problem could be easily solved if people from Burma have education and know what to do, how to do things correctly and properly.

        • Only the word of forensic pathologists from the west is acceptable? The word of Rakhines is not? Burma ceased to be a colony of Britain decades ago.

        • JennyDecember 5, 2012 at 7:58 am#

          Only the word of forensic pathologists from the west is acceptable? The word of Rakhines is not? Burma ceased to be a colony of Britain decades ago.
          Does Burma have CSI? CSI takes sometime to get DNA results. Burma doesn’t even have medicines to treat people. So don’t try to bluff us here. Those muslims men were arrested without evidence and charged there and then.Take the word of Rakhines? For your information, in the west and all well developed countries the charges are made by looking at the evidence. Hence the word of Rakhines doesn’t mean anything.

  6. If anyone wants a good introduction check out this recent film available on Netflix instant, “They Call It Myanmar: Lifting The Curtain.” As for Buddhism, though not affiliated with any branch, I practice an intensive form of meditation in a Buddhist tradition. That said, I have to admit, so many religions to hate, so little time!

  7. James, Someone broke into my house in Yangon and stole my shoes. Can you send the FBI over to investigate?. If the local police make an arrest, no one would believe them and the criminals would not be charged

    • I guess you have no comment to write. Being impertinent is the only way you know.

      I feel so sorry for Burmese. They have no proper education, no proper skills and no medicines etc. and nothing in life to look forward to.

  8. Burmese government arrested some muslims for possessing foreign currency. Anyone arrested in Burma for any reason can never get a fair trial. How sad is that. The ruler doesn’t allow lawyers and judges to do their jobs?

  9. Ryan wrote: “The threat of Islamic colonization in burma can’t be neglected” Virtually impossible in a state that’s still run by, effectively, a junta.

  10. Just wanted to point out a small error here: “…the Rakhine district, which borders Sri Lanka, from where the latter emigrate.” Sri Lanka doesn’t border any other country (it’s an island), and I do not believe they have a significant Rohingya Muslim population.