June 28, 2013

Buddha Buzz: The Face of Buddhist Terror & The Face of the Dalai Lama (in Tibet)

Alex Caring-Lobel

Buddhist-led anti-Muslim violence and persecution has received unprecedented mass-media attention in the past couple weeks. Images of Wirathu—monk-leader of the “969” movement, recognized for its hate speech and for inciting violence against Burma’s Muslims—have now graced both the cover of TIME and the front page of The New York Times.

While media attention has been for the most part appreciated by human rights activists, some journalist have criticized undue emphasis on the figure—or figurehead—of Wirathu. Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth countered on Twitter, “Instead of denouncing Time cover story on #Burma Buddhist extremism, why not denounce violence against Muslims?” Although the TIME feature may have had some holes, other media outlets have quickly filled them.

Burmese publication Irrawaddy reported on the largest gathering of monks in Burma in recent years. Fifteen-hundred from across Burma descended on Yangon, the country’s commercial capital, to discuss strategies to resolve tensions between the country’s Buddhist majority and Muslim minority. Senior monks urged others to rally support for a new bill “for the Protection of Race and Religion,” which includes a provision that would put restrictions on interfaith marriage. If enacted, the law would require Buddhist women to gain permission from their parents as well as local government officials in order to marry a Muslim man; Muslim men wedding Buddhists would be required to convert to Buddhism.

The Buddhist ultra-nationalist movement has received official Burmese government endorsement. Reuters reports that although 969 present itself as a grassroots movement, and boasts considerable grassroots support, its origins trace back to the former military dictatorship of “Myanmar”—the name adopted by the military junta. Many senior government officials, including President Thein Sein, were once high-ranking officers in the former military regime. The 969 movement relies on former-regime in addition to support from members of National League for Democracy, headed officially by Nobel Peace Prize leaureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

On Sunday, President Thein Sein issued a statement saying, 969 “is just a symbol of peace” and Wirathu is “a son of Lord Buddha” (via Reuters). Minister of Religious Affairs Sann Sint, a former lieutenant general in the military regime, also expressed his admiration for the extremist movement and its monk-leader.

Violence against Muslims has not only been widely condoned but also in some cases “abetted by local security forces.” The combination of strong grassroots and government support has been a deadly and terrifying combination for the country’s small Muslim population.

“I’m really frightened,” a Muslim vendor told The New York Times. “We tell the children not to go outside unless absolutely necessary.”


Yesterday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report presenting forced relocations of Tibetans in China. The government policy of mass rehousing and relocation has affected millions of Tibetans, and radically altered their ways of life. The Chinese government asserts that these operations are entirely voluntary, but HRW contends that this is only the case in a limited instances. Because China refuses to allow independent fact-finding investigations in Tibetan areas, the report relies heavily on open source satellite imagery, which reveals the policy’s drastic physical effect on the landscape.

The report comes in the wake of China’s loosening of policies against freedom of religious expression in Tibet. Just two weeks ago, Chinese officials announced an “abrupt and unexpected reversal of policy” allowing monks in some Tibetan areas to worship the Dalai Lama as a religious leader. Furthermore, the policy document asks monks to refrain from “criticizing the Dalai Lama” and “using such labels as a wolf in a monk’s robes,” an epithet for the Dalai Lama preferred by both Chinese media and Beijing.

'As a religious person, from now on you should respect and follow His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama,' the document continued, 'but in terms of politics you are not allowed to do so. Politics and religion should go separate ways.'

The policy, likely a response to the more than 100 self-immolations that have been carried out inside Tibet since 2009, is being called an “experiment,” which is how the Party refers to radical policy changes before they are instituted nationwide. China is expected to announce a new, official policy in August.

In addition, Beijing has lifted the 17-year ban on displaying pictured of the Dalai Lama in homes and monasteries in Dram, a town near the Nepali border—likely another “experiment.” The news comes on the eve of China’s forthcoming tour of Tibet by foreign journalists, leading many to suspect the provisional policies nothing more than a “PR push.”

Chinese officials would at least hope to stymy the surge in self-immolations. In an interview with Hong Kong-based Asia Weekly, Jin Wei, a director of ethnic and religious affairs at the Central Party School think-tank in Beijing, suggested that China’s policy in Tibet is failing, and it requires reform. According to journalist Tsering Namgyal, reactions from Tibetan have ranged from "guarded optimism to outright skepticism."

—Alex Caring-Lobel

Image 1: The cover of the July Issue of TIME
Image 2: Tibetan monks and activists pray next to a portrait of the Dalai Lama in a rally in Taipei on March 10, 2013. (Reuters/Pichi Chuang)

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Wanderer108's picture

Before everyone rushes to judgment, it might be good to do a little research into the actual situation to make sure what's being fed to us is actually so For sure its a messy situation in Burma and the government has acted horrendously but one should also consider that, interestingly enough, the Face of Buddhist Terror article was written by Time's China Bureau Chief, Hanna Beach. A quick search of her past articles seems like she's a bit of a China apologist. Ever since the self immolations began in Tibet China has attempted to create an idea of Buddhist Terrorism. They may have found their scapegoat with Wirathu.

While the Burmese response to the Rhoingyan Islamic separatists has been too intense, bordering on genocide, the Rhoingyan muslims do have ties to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. International islamic terrorism has been supporting the Rhoingyan separatist movement since 1947. Its a terrible messy situation that has many causes. Wirathu seems like he's sticking out for other reasons.

When compared to mob rule and military genocide, Wirathu's platform which advocates the patronage of Buddhist businesses and laws governing inter-marriage does seem more civil.

Great history on the conflict there:

Hannah Beach, Time Magazine's China Bureau Chief

Just some food for thought.

bcomenius's picture

Can anyone discuss the oil and gas drilling and licensing that is going on in Myanmar now? The oil and gas companies and therefore the banks and shareholder funds behind them are dividing up the oil and gas resources long safeguarded by the dictatorship from global markets. Creation of one up one down economic conditions between ethnic/language/religious groups has long been the Modus Operandi of these interests to cause people to move off ancestral lands. Setting up conditions of violence is how people are moved off into urban slums. Can anybody discuss this? Time Inc. will not reveal any of that, as in most historical cases of natural resource grab, the real reason is covered up by the violence story which always falls down on groups of people and nasty mean individuals. This is the sad story of religious conflict depicted in history books. We know the drill about Northern Ireland, North America, Palestine, Indian Subcontinent, and now Mynmar.

There is a reason the US Govt is suddenly opening up to the Mynmar Dictatorship and all these activities are starting. Watch for the private bank accounts too for the dictators and military men who will be handsomely rewarded for clearing these people off.

The Buddhists need to see clearly what is going on and finally out these nasty forces. They remain off the hook as our debate focused on teachers and the victims' actions. Time for the Illusion to fall!


Dominic Gomez's picture

Such unfortunate karma the Burmese people have, both Buddhists and non-Buddhists! As one of the Sangha my concern is the face on the cover of Time becoming the new face of the Buddha for those unfamiliar with the Dharma.

paul6316's picture

Yes, I know, 2 wrongs don't make a right, etc., but this morning, I'm not entirely unsympathetic with Wirathu: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Terror-strikes-Bodh-Gaya-serial...?
...awaiting Dominic Gomez's predictably bien-pensant response.

Dominic Gomez's picture

bien-pensant? Thank you, paul6316, for teaching us a new word! Namaste _()_

bcomenius's picture

What about our Karma since it is banks and oil companies creating these opportunities for the dictators and generals to do this? Those banks and oil companies are in US and Europe where we have the right to vote or otherwise exercise our political rights to constrain these corporate players from disturbing the hereditary lands of these Burmese (and of course many others such as Africa or Palestine where this same kind of situations have been setup in the past). What about our Karma? This is my big question.

An important clue here, as in so many cases of violence baiting in history, “abetted by local security forces.”

Dominic Gomez's picture

Our Karma needs to change big-time. Globalization is the physical manfestation of the oneness of all the world's people. Change karma locally, impact karma universally.

mahakala's picture

I'd be willing to bet you have a great multitude of concerns "as one of the Sangha". Perhaps you might be consoled by reflecting on some of the reasons for its institution?

"Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha."

— SN 56.11

Bodhitree3's picture

Sorry, I don't want to make assumptions about what your point might be; can you elaborate? I hope you're not offering something to the effect of "suffering happens."

Dominic Gomez's picture

"some of the reasons for its institution?" Any time you're ready to tell us, mahakala...

Personatlarge's picture
Bodhitree3's picture

Is there any way of knowing where the Burmese teachers whose lineage lives on in the U.S. stand in this nightmarish situation. It is very disturbing to have heard absolutely nothing from the well-known American students of U Pandita, U Tejaniya and others. We desperately need to hear from Westerm Buddhist teachers who studied in Myanmar. They must condemn all who participate in this madness, even their own teachers, if necessary. It is impossible to be a practicing Buddhist and preach or act in violence, robes or no robes. Those who do, betray the Dhamrma.

Bodhitree3's picture

Someone who knows Sayadaw U Pandita has assured me he's adamantly against the anti-Muslim (anti-anyone) violence and has forbidden his bhikkhus and bhikkunis from becoming involved in Burmese politics in any way.

Does anyone know anything about some of the other teachers who have influenced our Western Vipassana teachers? I know what I'd like to assume, but the silemce is deafening. Please share if you know.

James Mullaney's picture

Freedom for Tibet may come. No one ever thought that the Soviet Union would one day cease to exist, but it happened.