May 31, 2013

Buddha Buzz: Radical Strains of Buddhism

Alex Caring-Lobel

Virulent anti-Muslim violence has once again enveloped a Burmese town—this time Lashio in the northeastern Shan State. What was once perceived as an isolated outbreak of murderous rioting in the western Rakhine state against Rohingya Muslims last year has now become a common occurrence in locales across the country, where not only Rohingya but all Muslims have become viable targets.

Reacting to a quarrel between a Buddhist woman and an older Muslim male customer, Buddhist mobs—with monks in their ranks—armed with rocks, sticks, and machetes took to setting fire to the city’s largest mosque, a Muslim school, Muslim orphanage, and scores of Muslim-owned shops.

NPR reported an account of Buddhist shop-owner Ma Sandar Soe, whose CD shop and recording studio, situated next to the mosque, were burnt to the ground along with it.

The Buddhist businesswoman didn't blame them for burning it to the ground despite seeing it happen with her own eyes…Instead, her wrath was reserved for minority Muslims she accused of igniting Myanmar's latest round of sectarian unrest.

‘This happened because of the Muslims,’ she declared, sifting through charred CDs in the ruins of her recording studio.

While recent outbreaks of Buddhist-led violence against Muslims have been associated with various disputes and rumors of violence, anti-Muslim—and for that matter, anti-Indian—racism has a long history stretching back to colonial times which is deeply enmeshed in Burmese culture and identity. (You can read more about that in my interview with Burmese dissident Maung Zarni, conducted just hours after the rioting in Meiktila, Burma.)

It is only recently, however, that state powers and radical ultranationalist strains of Buddhism have compounded to create what has been called “genocide” in the pages of Tricycle (Vol. XXII No. 3, spring 2013), many months before the conflict was deemed “ethnic cleansing” by Human Rights Watch. The term is still not widely used, however, as its deployment by any sovereign government or conglomeration of governments would require intervention. But most governments are not even willing to maintain trade sanctions in light of President Thein Sein's economic and journalistic reforms, not to mention the opening up of the nation's market, which has incited something of a feeding frenzy.

In that article Zarni uses the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment for the Crime of Genocide to make a case for using the term "genocide." The convention defines genocide as the committing of any of five acts “with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group,” the fourth of which is “Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.” At the time the article was written, Zarni was most likely referring to laws requiring Muslim couples to receive government approval to marry—often through paying bribes. He might have also been referring to a two-child limit that was written into law back in 1994, but has largely gone unenforced. This changed just days ago when officials in Rakhine State chose to enact the law, a decision met with an outcry from human rights groups and even eliciting criticism from Aung San Suu Kyi, who has remained for the most part silent in regard to the plight of the Rohingya.

“It is discriminatory and also violates human rights,” the National League of Democracy leader told reporters on Monday.

The birth restriction makes Myanmar “perhaps the only country in the world to level such a restriction against a particular religious group,” reports Associated Press. Ironically, the country most famous for its child-limiting policy, China, actually exempts ethnic minorities.

The recent policy is but an addition to a number of other restrictions imposed on this same group of Rohingya in western Burma. The movement of displaced Rohingya, who are denied  citizenship despite inhabiting the land for generations, is severely restricted by state security that prevents them from even going to school or visiting the hospital. Doctors Without Borders has reported several human rights concerns: “tuberculosis patients unable to access the treatment they need to stay alive, and pregnant women dying unnecessarily because they have nowhere safe to deliver."

State security forces moved Rohingya into refugee-like camps in Rakhine State with the pretense of protecting them from anti-Muslim violence, but at this point it is unclear whether the camps’ fences and guards are there to keep attackers out or keep the Rohingya in.

Across the Bay of Bengal, a Therevada Sri Lankan monk—adopting what has become a common strategy among Tibetan Buddhist monks—self-immolated in the street. The monk, Ven. Indarathana, set himself on fire outside the Temple of the Tooth—the holiest Buddhist shrine in the country—in protest of the Muslim halal method of slaughtering animals.

Ven. Indarathana belonged to the Buddhist revivalist group Voice of Sinhala, a hardline Buddhist rights group. This could qualify the self-immolation as the first connected with an anti-Muslim organization. According to BBC correspondent Charles Haviland, Sinhalese ultranationalist government ministers are praising the incident as “an act of self-sacrifice for the good of the country.”

—Alex Caring-Lobel

Image 1: Buddhist mobs roam the streets in Lashio, Burma.
Image 2:
Jonathan Saruk/Getty images. Thousands of unregistered Rohingya Muslim refugees from Burma live next to the registered refugee camp at Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Bangladesh.

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Hktony's picture

Maybe I am biased but why are you so critical of Burma and it's people. This article sounds like it has been written by an employeee of the UN. Stop to think why burmese people are objecting to islam. In case you don't know even muslim countries do not want these people, they reject them. Issues here probably parallel those in Ceylon where islam is trying to dominate the political landscape bit by bit, halal shop by halal shop, one mosque at a time. Take a look at southern Thailand 4 or 5 thousand dead buddhist in a few short years at the hands of islam. Thailand does little because of monies from saudi to the government. Moving on to the two child policy. What is wrong here? It is a countries legitimate right to set national policy not the politically correct Anericans who kill around one Million, let me repeat 1000000 children a year through abortions. What moral force does america have here (the UN is owned by america as are many ngo's). In fact the population of the black community in the USA has declined due to this policy if I remember correctly. Child policy bothers the west because they want to use it so muslims can expand, grow stronger and destabilise the country. Americans can then step in with their many organisations and start spreading their policies on Burmese people. Maybe you are not trying to be critical of burmese but it may help to talk to the burmese on the ground. Let burma find its way. It will make mistakes but it is a soveriegn country not an arm of America. Where America goes poverty and war are close behind. I could be wrong??? I live in Asia and america and it's interference is not wanted here.

Dolgyal's picture

What is wanted then, Tony, Chinese neo-capitalist imperialism? Wherever the Peoples Republic of China goes in its quest to strip the planet of each and every element on the periodic table–witness Africa–human rights are destroyed as was the case with Burma, Tibet and Sudan, to name a examples. Sorry, your reasoning is simplistic jingoism.
If one is bent to single out any particular evil empire, while we are at it how many victims of female infanticide have there been in China since portable ultrasound units make gender determination so easy? Published reports in China show the gender ratio for newborns in 2005 was 118 boys for every 100 girls, and in some southern regions like Guangdong and Hainan, the number has reached 130 boys for every 100 girls.

Hktony's picture

My main reason for writing was to try and address the inbalance in many western reports about Asia especially between Buddhist and muslims which are seen with heavily tinted american glasses. So yes lets start by changing the focus and bash China. Well done but the issue still stands bias in the western press. The USA, a democratic country, has used its muscle to spin stories of the poor down trodden minority in Burma, a minority that even other islamic countries don't want. Did you ask why?? No?? That is the question we should be asking surely. Also why adopt a child policy that the Burmese don't agree with? Who gave the west the moral authority to say what is right or wrong?? Killing black kids in america is fine but in Burma a planned approach which is not based on abortion is wrong. Go figure for people who follow the five precepts. O yes it was the wise americans the land of the free unless you are a whistleblower or a Guantanamo Bay resident held without trial but to mention a few.In short America is not trusted by many people here in asia and is seen to act only when it benefits America. The articles that are written my western journals concerning buddhist-muslim conflict are simplistic and bordering on naive. Without reading between the lines they are written by people indoctinated by critical thinking theory dominant in the USA. I live in asia, I work with asians and don't need to be told by americans how life is here and then be told I am simplistic. As a Buddhist journal I would have expected an unbiased assessment of Burma and the problems that beset it. I could be wrong.

Dolgyal's picture

Hktony, I could be wrong but you are still angry about CNN and the 2008 Olympics? When 14,000 dead pigs are dumped in the river near Shanghai this spring, is that China bashing or just plain reporting?
Has it occurred to you you may be cherishing your own biases? All such self-created images are ephemeral in any case. America has largely neglected Myanmar which is in the sphere of influence of the Chinese regime...corrupt generals are right up their alley.

Hktony's picture

I am not Chinese I am a westerner and do not support communism. Why am I biased and you are not?? Why are self-created images ephemeral? What does that mean? Self-created images are impermanent and non self-created images are not? Or because things are ephemeral they are not real??
All I tried to say was political correctness has biased media reports and tends to paint things with the colors of America. This bias is evident, to me at least, in reports of Buddhist Muslim violence where every it occurs. It is also evident in Christian Muslim or Jewish Muslim violence. It is because of this that I question the stories that come out of the states or other western countries. The issue of two child policy which the un/ America see as discrimination is laughable. Why? A country which allows murder of children suggesting to a Buddhist country what is right and wrong. A country that hounds a whistle blower for telling the truth! We judge a person from his actions. I judge America from its actions. Why not judge china? Not because they are any better, no! Because America has purposely put itself on the world stage as a leader, as the policeman of the world. Well in that case it is only natural to look at the policeman and his actions, and be critical. This to me is clear comprehension. If china did the same as the USA I would also examine its stance. America fingerprints can be found everywhere in the world. I am sure already along with china, American is carving up Burma and then playing the victim card.
Take a look at the Middle East and what has happened thanks to the meddling of Obama. They are at it again here with war ships in the area here using Korea and Japan to stir things up. But then I am cherishing my own biases and given hey are all ephemeral what does it matter? I mean who cares why normally pacifist monks would get so angry as to attack muslims. Must have a terrible mean streak in them. Or and here you still have not answered the question. What have the Muslims done? Why won't other muslims countries take them? Why has this religion caused conflict where ever it goes? Why would a very poor group of Muslims in Burma without adequate funds have more children than they can cater for? Why do muslims in other countries have up to 7 times more children than indigenous people? I am pretty sure you know that things arise because of a multitude of causes. I think you are biased. Unfortunately these biased thoughts are not ephemeral but continue to support and sustain ignorance. As I said I could be wrong. But I have yet to hear you answer any questions just china is bad and I am deluded.

Dolgyal's picture

Philosophy is about questions, not necessarily answers and you raise some good ones. I'm just pissed off Chinese security forces shot yet another Tibetan monk in the head this week for peacefully celebrating the Dalai Lama's birthday.
http://www.phayul.com/news/article.aspx?id=33700&article=Tibetan+monk+shot+in+the+head%2c+Others+severely+injured+for+the+Dalai+Lama’s+birthday+prayers
Moreover the families of the numerous unarmed civilians murdered in 2008, photos of whom were released by Wikileaks have no justice.
http://wlstorage.net/file/tibet-protest-photos/index.html

The PRC have an awful lot to answer for, also regarding their complicity in Burma and elsewhere.

Jones's picture

"Killing black kids in America is fine", when does the author say this? Abortion is not a subject of this article; forcing a minority to have only two children per couple is one of them. Abortion is a choice and therefore is not mandatory, but the two-children limit policy is mandatory.

What you are doing is using a sophism. You are trying to associate the author with something bad ("Killing black kids in America") to discredit him and his statement.

(Besides, a wrong action is wrong no matter who states it. If a murderer says that murder is wrong, the statement is still true even if she killed someone.)

robin13's picture

One cant help but wonder how the perpetrators, thinking of themselves ax Buddhists, justify these terrible acts in their own minds and reconcile this with Buddhist teachings.

Dominic Gomez's picture