Buddhism in Burma, Part 2

Buddhist-Muslim Violence

Rohingya Muslim Mother and Child
Amina Khatu,22, holds her son Ahmed, 2, inside a thatched hut at a crowded refugee camp in Burma. © Paula Bronstein / Staff / Getty Images

The Buddhists of Burma (Myanmar) have made international news often in recent years. Most recently there have been reports of Buddhists, including monks, violently attacking Rohingya Muslims in Burma. This article provides some background into what's going on.

Understanding current events in Burma requires understanding that Burma has been ruled by a military dictatorship since 1962. Although elections in 2011 loosened the junta's grip and put reformers in key government positions, the military hard-liners still have much power and influence in the government.

Please see "Buddhism in Burma, Part 1," for historical background and a general overview of Burmese Buddhism.

Who Are the Rohingya Muslims?

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority living mostly in the Rakhine State (formerly called Arakan) of western Burma, bordering the Bay of Bengal and Bangladesh. Muslims originally settled in Rakhine in the 15th century, possibly earlier.

In the late 18th century political upheavals caused the Rohingya and others in western Burma to flee to what is now Bangladesh. The British invaded in 1823, and in 1826 Rakhine became a British territory. The British encouraged people from Bangladesh -- then part of the British colony of Bengal -- and other parts of the Indian subcontinent to move to relatively unpopulated Rakhine. Many who did so were Rohingya Muslims returning to their former lands.

When Burma became an independent nation in 1946, Rohingya Muslims were considered citizens and allowed to vote.

At that time there was some support among the Rohingya for making Rokhine an autonomous Muslim state. Then in 1962 a coup d'├ętat ousted the elected government and installed a military dictatorship. Conditions for most people of Burma deteriorated, but the Rohingya may have gotten the worst of it.

For the past 50 year the Rohingya have been subjected to oppression from the dictatorship of Burma.

Possibly the Rohingya were being scapegoated to take blame for the hardships most Burmese faced. But for whatever reason, several times over these year hundreds of thousands of Rohigya have been forced to flee to escape brutality.

In 1982 the government passed a new citizenship law that excluded the Rohingya from citizenship, thereby rendering 800,000 Rohingya living in Burma to be stateless. This included people whose families had lived in Burma for generations. The government imposed a two-child limit on Rohingya couples and stopped issuing birth certificates for Rohingya babies. On several occasions Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh for safety. However, the government of Bangladesh stopped granting them refugee status.

Stateless and without protection of their rights, the Rohingya and other Muslims -- estimated to be between 4 to 8 percent of the population of Burma -- have lived tenuously on the fringe of Burmese society.

The Buddhist Connection

The current conflict between Buddhists and Muslims began in 2012, when a Buddhist woman in Rakhine was found raped and murdered. (Note that "Buddhist" here is something like the default designation of a citizen of Burma, nearly 90 percent of which identify as Buddhist, devout or not.) Blame fell on the Rohingyas, setting off waves of rioting and mob violence between Buddhists and Rohingyas.

From June 2012 to July 2013, the violence has left more than 200 people dead and displaced about 150,000 more, mostly Muslims. Violence also has spread to other parts of Burma.

Most shocking were reports of Buddhist monks taking part in the violence. In particular, a 45-year-old monk named Wirathu has gained international notoriety as the "Burmese bin Laden." Wirathu produces DVDs and social media pieces that spread rumors and bigotry against Muslims. He leads the "969" movement that links Buddhism and Burmese nationalism.

Wirathu does not represent all Buddhist monks. Other members of the monastic sangha have spoken against the violence. One Buddhist monastery offers shelter to Muslims who have lost their homes in the riots.

Still, hate speech and mob violence are so obviously antithetical to everything Buddhism stands for that it is stunning, to say the least, to see monks sucked into this behavior.

Factors to Consider

There is no excuse for monks taking part in ethnic/sectarian violence, but here are some factors that might explain it.

During the long years of the military dictatorship, desperate parents sent many of their sons to monasteries to be ordained. This insured the boys were sheltered and fed. It also may have filled monasteries with young men more interested in politics than dharma.

Factions within the government appear to be encouraging the monks to take part in the violence. Aung Zaw, a journalist who founded the news organization Irrawaddy Publishing Group, wrote in the New York Times that "the deadly anti-Muslim riots are no accident but the product of an effort led by army hard-liners to thwart both the reforms and Myanmar's opening to the world." Hate speech from the hard liners has infected many of Burma's Buddhists and driven them to violence against Muslims. In turn, the monks provide a veneer of respectability to the violence.

Other observers see tacit, at least, coordination between the mobs and the government, and suspect the hard-liners are trying to discredit Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma expert and author Bertil Lintner said, "The government is very worried about the support commanded by Suu Kyi. It wants to force her into a position where she has to make a pro-Rohingya public statement that could damage her popularity among Burma's Buddhists, where anti-Muslim sentiment runs high. On the other hand, if she remains silent she will disappoint those who support her firm stand on human rights."

Many Burmese appear to approve of the violence in the name of protecting Buddhism. They are too myopic to see the damage they are doing to the reputation of Buddhism worldwide.

Read More: Who Are the Rohingya Musllims?