Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; by non-hatred only is hatred appeased. This is an unending truth.
— Dhammapada, 5
Harsh voices of intolerance have become almost daily news from Burma.
The July 1st international edition of Time magazine has added fuel to the fire with a cover photo of the fundamentalist Burmese monk Wirathu, calling him “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”
Protesters took to the streets this weekend, and President Thein Sein officially banned the magazine, citing concern about the “recurrence of religious and racial conflict.” The president’s office released a statement that:
“The cover story of the magazine, depicting a few individuals who are acting contrary to most of Myanmar, is creating misconceptions about Buddhism, a religion practiced by the majority of Myanmar’s population.”
The president added, regarding Wirathu and his fundamentalist 969 movement, that 969 “is just a symbol of peace” and Wirathu is “a son of Lord Buddha.”
Some observers have worried, as the Wall Street Journal reports this week, that this media messaging skirmish, with the government’s tacit support for Wirathu’s movement, will only make things worse—for Burma’s Muslims as well as the country as a whole.
Religious and ethnic confrontation in Burma challenge cherished ideas of Buddhism and religious fellowship. For those of us inside and outside Burma who have long supported the nonviolent movement for democracy and human rights, this is a disappointing fact.
An Alarming Escalation
Recently two days of violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Lashio—the largest town in Burma’s Shan State, near the Chinese border—have left a mosque, an orphanage, and many shops destroyed by Buddhist-identified mobs roaming the streets on motorcycles. Three hundred Muslims have taken refuge in a local Buddhist temple, thousands have fled, and the count of dead and injured is still not clear.
In March there were similar riots in Meikitla, in central Burma south of Mandalay, which left forty-four people dead and thousands of homes consumed in flames. Last year’s conflict in Burma’s western Rakhine state, also saw thousands of homes destroyed and roughly a hundred thousand people displaced—mostly Muslims—in ethnic violence between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas.
There has been violence on both sides. Recent rioting in Lashio began when a Muslim man attacked a Buddhist woman shopkeeper—but in each of these instances the preponderance of organized reaction seems to be Buddhist-identified, often with leadership from monks, and with response from the government and the Burmese army only after damage has been done.
Local people often describe the military as standing by and just watching as the destruction unfolds.
To make matters worse, on May 25 authorities in Rakhine state announced a policy imposing a two-child limit on Muslim Rohingya families in two western townships, reinforcing the perception of ethnic cleansing in Burma. This alarming policy is the only known legal restriction of its kind today against a specific religious group.
An AP report on May 27 cited Aung San Suu Kyi’s cautiously nuanced position. She told reporters that “if true, this is against the law.” The Nobel Laureate asserted that she hadn’t heard details of the measure but “if it exists, it is discriminatory and also violates human rights.”
Burma’s minister of religious affairs Sann Sint, a lieutenant general in the former junta, justified a boycott of Muslim businesses led by monks. “We are now practicing market economics,” he said. “Nobody can stop that. It is up to the consumers.”
And in a new and worrying development, according to the Thailand-based independent news source for Burma, the Irrawaddy, “About 200 senior Buddhist monks convening in Rangoon on Thursday have begun drafting a religious law that would put restrictions on marriages between Buddhist women and Muslim men.”
Bearing Witness: A Personal Background
My first visit to the Burmese border was with a Buddhist witness delegation in 1992. This was not long after the repressive military junta—going by the acronym SLORC—had overturned the democracy movement’s landslide electoral victory. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was confined under house arrest, despite having won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. Along the border and in many of Burma’s ethnic states, armed rebellion, guerilla war, and government ethnic cleansing were the order of the day. As we spoke with monks, soldiers, students, and activists roughly encamped on the border we could all hear the thud of mortar fire just two or three miles distant.
Over the years I have often returned to the Burma to provide funds for medical services and supplies, to support education and training for displaced peoples, and simply to bear witness so I could bring a sense of this bitter reality back to Buddhist communities in the U.S.
The Buddhist-led Saffron Revolution in 2007 opened the world’s eyes to conditions in Burma. Images of brutality, violence, and murder—smuggled out at great risk—raised the stakes between the junta and citizenry. The whole nation—all sides—were shamed by these images. That shame deepened the next year when Cyclone Nargis tore across southern Burma at full force, leaving more than 150,000 dead and large areas of population and agricultural devastated. The junta’s sluggish response and resistance to outside humanitarian relief drove the death toll higher. Once again, Burma was shamed before itself and the world.
By the spring of 2011, after a rigged but nonetheless significant election, the junta stepped down and a period of liberalization blossomed after fifty years of direct oppression. Many of us were heartened by this change and by the return of Aung San Suu Kyi to political life. Hundreds or thousands of political prisoners, 250 of them monks and nuns, remained in Burma’s jails. Along with many others I pressed the new government to release these men and women, who had contributions to make in the rebuilding of society.
Several of us were also able to go to Burma and begin to set up training programs in basic skills of peace-building, conflict reduction, and reconciliation. I remain dedicated both to this work and to training Burmese themselves to raise the banner of peace. So as I watch the rise of ethnic conflict in a land I have come to love, I feel a great sadness.
Perhaps what we see is somehow an inevitability of human nature—but I am not ready to concede that point.
Sources of Violence
The roots of this conflict are hard to untangle. They go back decades to the period of British colonial occupation and before.
But the current conflict also speaks to a scarcity of land and economic resources that manifests as communal hostility. One wonders, too, whether we are seeing garden-variety religio- or ethno-centrism—a disease of group identity and privilege that is sadly endemic among humans. Is there also a perverse political motivation, in which the former military junta is “allowing” the violence so they can intervene and reassert their position as the agent of social order in Burma?
Considering the Rohingyas in Rakhine state, they have lived in Burma in Rakhine state for generations, if not for several hundred years. The former military regime’s 1984 law excluded them from among the nation’s 135 recognized ethnicities, denying the Rohingyas citizenship and basic rights. Neighboring Bangladesh, a predominantly Islamic country, also denies citizenship to Rohingyas presently living within its own borders. It is not surprising that the United Nations views the Rohingyas as “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.”
Burma, or Myanmar, is still in a delicate transition to democracy after fifty years of military dictatorship. The current 2008 constitution reserves one quarter of the seats in both legislative bodies to delegates from the tatmadaw/military. It is hard to imagine Burma going back to its dark ages, yet within recent memory we can recall the dissolution of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia into ethnic and religious enclaves when soviet-style dictatorship ended.
I hope for better in Burma, and look to the government of Burma—including President Thien Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—to play an active and nonviolent role in resolving conflicts between Buddhists, Muslims, and all ethnic groups. Central to this resolution is a guarantee of citizenship, human and religious rights to all Burma’s diverse inhabitants.
Although we have seen the rise of so-called Buddhist nationalism in Burma, with organizations like “969” spreading fear and hatred, and prominent monks like Ven. Wirathu preaching against a far-fetched Muslim mission to take over the country, there are countless open-minded citizens and monks who simply desire peace and harmony.
May they have the courage to speak out.