Buddhist Nationalism in Burma

Institutionalized racism against the Rohingya Muslims led Burma to genocideMaung Zarni

Burma1For those outside Burma, the broadcast images of the Theravada monks of the “Saffron Revolution” of 2007 are still fresh. Backed by the devout Buddhist population, these monks were seen chanting metta and the Lovingkindness Sutta on the streets of Rangoon, Mandalay, and Pakhoke-ku, calling for an improvement in public well-being in the face of the growing economic hardships afflicting Burma’s Buddhists. The barefooted monks’ brave protests against the rule of the country’s junta represented a fine example of engaged Buddhism, a version of Buddhist activism that resonates with the age-old Orientalist, decontextualized view of what Buddhists are like: lovable, smiley, hospitable people who lead their lives mindfully and have much to offer the non-Buddhist world in the ways of fostering peace.

But in the past year, the world has been confronted with images of the same robed monks publicly demonstrating against Islamic nations’ distribution of aid to starving Muslim Rohingya, displaced into refugee camps in their own country following Rakhine Buddhist attacks. The rise of genocidal Buddhist racism against the Rohingya, a minority community of nearly one million people in the western Burmese province of Rakhine (also known as Arakan), is an international humanitarian crisis. The military-ruled state has been relentless in its attempts to erase Rohingya ethnic identity, which was officially recognized as a distinct ethnic group in 1954 by the democratic government of Prime Minister U Nu. Indeed, in the past months of violent conflict, beginning in June 2012, the Rohingya have suffered over 90 percent of the total death toll and property destruction, including the devastation of entire villages and city neighborhoods. Following the initial eruption of violence in western Burma, several waves of killing, arson, and rampage have been directed at the Rohingya, backed by Burma’s security forces.

Over the course of the past few years an extremely potent and dangerous strain of racism has emerged among Burma’s Theravada Buddhists, who have participated in the destruction and expulsion of the entire population of Rohingya Muslims. The atrocities occurring in the name of Buddhist nationalism in Burma are impossible to reconcile with the ideal of metta. Buddhist Rakhine throw young Rohingya children into the flames of their own homes before the eyes of family members. On June 3, 10 out-of-province Muslim pilgrims were pulled off a bus in the Rakhine town of Taunggoke, about 200 miles west of the former capital, Rangoon, and beaten to death by a mob of more than 100 Buddhist men. The crime occurred in broad daylight and in full view of both the public and local law enforcement officials.

One of the most shocking aspects of anti-Rohingya racism is that the overwhelming majority of Burmese, especially in the heartland of upper Burma, have never met a single Rohingya in person, as most Rohingya live in the Rakhine State of western Burma adjacent to Bangladesh.


Physical appearance—aside from language, religion, culture, and class—is an integral marker in a community of nationalists. The importance of complexion is often overlooked when examining racism across Asia. Rohingya are categorically darker-skinned people—sometimes called by the slur “Bengali kalar.” Indeed, the lighter-skinned Buddhists of Burma are not alone in their fear of dark-skinned people and belief that the paler the skin, the more desirable, respectable, and protected one is.

The virulent hatred and oppression directed at Muslims extends to any Buddhists who are considered to have helped them. In October 2012, local Rakhine Buddhist men were named, degraded, punished, and paraded around public places wearing handwritten signs that said, “I am a traitor.” Their crimes? Selling groceries to a Rohingya.

The rose-tinted Orientalist take on Buddhism is so hegemonic that Westerners are often shocked when they hear of the atrocities carried out by militarized Buddhist masses and the political states that have adopted or manipulated Buddhism as part of the state ideological apparatus. Buddhism’s popular image as a peaceful, humanistic religious doctrine immune to dogma contradicts a long history of violent Buddhist empires—from Emperor Ashoka’s on the old Indian subcontinent to the Buddhist monarchies of precolonial Sri Lanka and Siam, and the Khmer and Burmese kingdoms—some of whom sanctioned war with recourse to the dharma. The oppression carried out under Burmese President Thein Sein and his Sri Lankan counterpart, President Rajapaksa, is just the latest from a long line of violent Buddhist regimes.

Prejudice arises wherever communities of different faiths, classes, and ethnicities coexist and interact. But genocide is not an inevitable outcome of group prejudice; there have to be institutional mechanisms and an organized harnessing of forces, generally enacted by the state. Burma’s lay public and political society, while supposedly informed by the worldwide ideals of human rights and democracy that spread across formerly closed leftist polities, have evidently failed to undergo what Aung San Suu Kyi famously called “the revolution of the spirit.” Instead, they have chosen to pursue a destructive nationalism that is rooted in the fear of losing property, land, and racial and religious purity.

The Burmese state has mobilized its society’s Islamaphobia through various institutional mechanisms, including the state media outlets and social media sites, the presidential office’s Facebook page among them. Burmese-language social media sites, which thrive out of the purview of international media watchdogs, are littered with hate speech. Postings of graphic images of Muslim victims, including Rohingyas, on Facebook—easily the most popular social media website in the newly opened Burma—have been greeted with approving responses from the country’s Buddhist netizens, both within the country and throughout the diaspora. The few Burmese and foreign human rights activists and journalists who dare to speak out against this rising tide of racist, fascist tendencies in Buddhist society have been increasingly subjected to slander, cyber-threats, and hate speech. Journalists have repeatedly expressed dismay over the volume of angry hate email they receive from Burmese citizens whenever stories are published condemning the recent violence.

In a documentary first aired by Al Jazeera on December 9, 2012, Professor William Schabas, one of the world’s foremost experts on genocide and until recently the president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, characterized the sectarian violence against the Rohingya as genocide. “We’re moving into a zone where the word can be used,” Schabas said “When you see measures preventing births, trying to deny the identity of the people, hoping to see that. . . they no longer exist, denying their history, denying the legitimacy of the right to live where they live, these are all warning signs that mean that it’s not frivolous to envisage the use of the term genocide.”


The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which entered into force on January 12, 1951, states: “In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

( a ) Killing members of the group;
( b ) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
( c ) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
( d ) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
( e ) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The ruling Burmese, both the Buddhist society and the Buddhist state, have committed the first four of these acts, though the state denies wrongdoing by their security forces during the nearly six months of violence in 2012 that left 167 Rohingya Muslims dead and 110,000 refugees.

As for paragraph (e), malnourished, poorly educated Rohingya children have not been “forcibly transferred” to another group, but there have been instances of Rohingya children being brutally murdered—stabbed, drowned, burned alive—by the Buddhist Rakhine.

During a public lecture in Brunei, Southeast Asia, on December 2, 2012, Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), was asked by a student what the OIC—with its 57 member states representing, in theory, at least 1.5 billion Muslims—was doing to address the persecution of Muslim minorities around the world. In his response, Ihsanoglu described the Burmese democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi as a human rights activist for Burma’s Buddhists. Suu Kyi, he said, is “only interested in the human rights of the Buddhists because they are human beings and the Muslims are not.” While the emotion behind the statement is understandable, there is a political calculus at play. Aung San Suu Kyi has little to gain from speaking out against the treatment of the Rohingya Muslims. She is no longer a political dissident, she’s a politician, and her eyes are fixed on a prize: winning the 2015 election with a majority Buddhist vote.

Prior to his lecture in Brunei, Professor Ihsanoglu sent a letter to Suu Kyi on behalf of the OIC in which he pressed the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader to use her enormous awza, or earned societal influence, to help stem the tide of Buddhist racism against the Rohingya and the Muslim population at large. The letter was met with silence. In failing to decry the human rights abuses against the Rohingya, Burma’s iconic leader—who is seen in some Burmese Buddhist circles as bhodhi saddhava (“would-be Buddha”)—has failed to walk the walk of Buddhist humanism.

On January 4, 2013, the 65th anniversary of Burma’s independence from British rule, Suu Kyi said in a speech at the NLD headquarters that Burma’s people need to rely on themselves if they want to realize their dream of a free and prosperous nation. “Don’t expect anyone to be your savior,” she warned. But as the Burmese magazine The Irrawaddy pointed out in a recent editorial, “Suu Kyi is right that Burma doesn’t need a savior; but it does need a leader.”

Jonathan Saruk

The current leaders of Burma’s 25-year-old human rights movement now speak the language of national security, absolutist sovereignty, and conditional human rights, echoing the language and sentiment of their former captors, the ruling military. The NLD and the democracy opposition have failed to see their own personal and ideological contradictions. Their embrace of conditional human rights and their absolutist reading of sovereignty indicates that they have talked the talk of Buddhism, with its ideal of universal lovingkindness, but have failed to walk the walk. Many student leaders and human rights activists of the 1988 uprisings who spent half their lives behind bars in the notorious military-run Insein Prison as “prisoners of conscience” are unprepared to extend such human rights ideals to the Rohingya Muslims, a population that the United Nations identifies as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.

Buddhism, as a religious and philosophical system, has absolutely nothing to say about the political, economic, and cultural organizations that we call nation states. Buddhism is not about people imagining a national community predicated upon adversarial relations but rather about using one’s own intellectual faculties to see through the nonexistent core-essence of self. Yet in Burma, this humanistic philosophy has proven itself indisposed to guard against overarching societal prejudices and their ultranationalist proponents, those Burmese who vociferously profess their adherence to Buddhist faith, practice religious rituals and patronize Buddhist institutions, and then proceed to commit unspeakable atrocities against anyone they imagine to be an enemy of Buddhism, the Buddhist state, Buddhist wealth, Buddhist women, and Buddhist land. Instead of propagating the guiding societal principles of religious tolerance, nondiscrimination, and social inclusion among lay devotees, the influential Buddhist clergy themselves have, in their outspoken criticism and picketing against the Royingya, become an entire people’s most dangerous threat.

Throughout the alien British rule from 1824 to 1948, the Buddhism of colonial Burma contributed to the formation of a common national identity, providing a basis for concerted anti-imperialist efforts among disparate social classes and ethnolinguistically diverse Buddhist communities with conflicting political interests. The current resurgence of racism is a direct result of a half century of despotic military rule. The careful construction of an iron cage—a monolithic constellation of values, an ad hoc ethos—locks in and naturalizes a singular view of what constitutes Burma’s national culture. The dominant population remains potently ethnonationalist, essentializing Buddhism as the core of an authentic Burmese national identity.

For a minority of Burmese Buddhists, the combination of Buddhist nationalism and strong racial distinctions that served as an ideological springboard and a rallying cry against the British Raj is now scorned as a thing of the past. But for many Burmese Buddhists, the same ethnoreligious nationalism that once served the Burmese independence movement has provided an environment in which their racism can flourish.

Buddhist-inspired social forces have proven to be a double-edged sword over the years. In the newly independent post–WWII Burma of the late 1940s, Marxist-inspired revolutionary nationalists led by the martyred Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi’s father) set out to forge a new multiculturalist, secular, and civic nationalism. In 1948, after Aung San was assassinated by a rival Burmese politician (and less than 90 days after the country’s newly acquired independence), Burma plunged into a long series of armed revolts against the central state. Aung San’s successors gradually abandoned any attempts to secularize Burmese nationalism along the lines of civic nationalism, which would have moved the Burmese away from the premodern provincialist blood- and faith-based view of national identity.

Against this backdrop, the popular racism of the Buddhist majority presents itself as a potent social force that can be appropriated by Burma’s national security state to unify and rally anti-Muslim Burmese citizens. Burma’s state authorities, consisting predominantly of generals and ex-generals, are also generous patrons of Buddhist institutional activities such as dana and pagoda and temple building. These military leaders will continue to feed the masses their opiate—the pretension of Buddhism, with its effect of normalizing human suffering—to the masses, as long as the Buddhists believe that their faith, and not their political economy, promises better rebirth. As one regime official told me, “The bottom line is, we don’t want any more ‘Mus’ in our country, but we can’t possibly kill them all.” As a solution, the reformist state leadership has outsourced the job of cleansing its Golden Land to the Rakhine Buddhists.

Maung Zarni is a Burmese activist and scholar. He is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and the founder of the Free Burma Coalition.

Read Tricycle's interview with Zarni, in which he explores the colonial roots of Burmese racism, the perceived threat of the Rohingya, and the West's fetishized image of Buddhist societies.

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

Image 2: Thet Htoo/Zuma Press/Newscom. Rakhine men and a Buddhist monk hold handmade spears and watch as a fire burns in Sittwe, capital city of Rakhine State. Two weeks of clashes between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists left an official death toll at 50, with 58 injured and more than 2,500 houses burned down.

Image 3: Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty/Newscom. Rakhine Buddhist monks pray in Langon, Burma, in June 2012. Several thousand monks took to the streets of Mandalay to protest against a world Islamic body’s efforts to help Muslim Rohingya in strife-hit Rakhine State.

Image 4: Jonathan Saruk/Getty images. An unregistered Rohingya child draws on the wall of a classroom provided by the charity Islamic Relief at Leda Refugee Camp, Bangladesh.

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Kenneth Daly's picture

Another article in the non-Buddhist media urging Aung San Suu Kyi to speak up for the Rohingya. http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/06/08/wheres-aung-san-suu-kyi-when-burma-n...

Kenneth Daly's picture

It's not bad enough that he promotes persecution of the Rohingya in Burma now this Buddhist Nazi spreads hate in Sri Lanka. http://nyti.ms/1rD4lZ1

Kenneth Daly's picture

Let the Burmese government know that you care about the Rohingya. In addition to safety from physical violence, one immediate need of the Rohingya is medical care. The Myanmar government expelled Doctors without Borders for serving the Rohingya. One way we can let them know that we care and that we are watching is to write to the President of Myanmar to request that he allow Doctors without Borders to return to provide medical care. Here is the link to submit a letter. http://www.to-mpo.com/index.php

I wrote on this link and received an automated acknowledgement, but no actual response. Perhaps if we flood the this site they will get the message.

Other contact information is:

Embassy of the Union of Myanmar
2300 S Street NW Washington, DC, 20008
Phone : 202-332-3344

Permanent Mission to the United Nations
10 East 77th Street, New York, NY. 10075
Telephone : +1 (212) 744 1271, 744 1275
Email : myanmarmission@verizon.net
Web site: http://www.mmnewyork.org

Also please consider signing this petition to President Obama to change course and stand up for the Rohingya of Burma. http://endgenocide.org/actions/protect-the-rohingya/ Perhaps he's learning from the results of his inaction in Syria as Clinton did when it was too late in Rwanda. It's not too late in Burma.

Kenneth Daly's picture

The persecution of Muslims in Burma documented in this article continues into 2014, and is now expanded to ethnic Chinese Muslims. Should we be ashamed? http://t.co/mNRZWjwDWJ

enver.rahmanov's picture

This is so heart breaking. How does the place of religious "loving kindness" (metta) becomes so genocidal?
We know that no religion is immune from being abused. Their greatest danger is becoming the very tool of colonialism, nationalism, prejudice and oppression that so contrary to their core teachings. It is terrible that Burma, its government and many of her people are involved in such atrocities and even Aung San Suu Kyi has done almost nothing to speak against such violence. This reminds me of unforgettable tragedies of inhuman cleansing in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and other places that shocked our humanity. We as a human family, especially Buddhist practitioners, should stand up to this before many more lives are lost to this incomprehensible perversion of human heart.

Hktony's picture

Are you sure genocidal is appropriate ? The greatest danger is to become a tool of colonialism....blah.. Yes you are right the west used this to suppress the Serbs even when they were trying to defend themselves from Muslims. At the time the cruel terrible people were seen to be the serbs because we were told so but in fact he reverse was right. Rwanda another horror where Samantha Power suggest in her book that the USA blocked several attempts at early intervention. Aung S S Kyi did not support the two child policy in support of Muslims. What we have is a distorted view of the horrible monks hurting the poor Muslim victims. America seems to choose the victims to suite its agenda? I suggest you take a closer look before we have another Serbia or Rwanda incidence in burma. You don't need to look to far it is all coming from the USA . Yes we should stand up to this violence but we better get our facts right first.

pajhodgson's picture

I guess I am not bright enough to figure out the intricacies of this, I just see the child and want to weep. Similar to my desire to weep in any situation of oppression, abuse or genocide. So what can I do? I do the best I can internally, but I ask in all innocence, how can a person help to stop this kind of grief creation.

jackelope65's picture

Were the Crusaders Christians? Are the monks in Burma who are persecuting Muslims Buddhists? Being Christian or Buddhist is not as simple as calling oneself or others by a specific name. Christians reflect the light of Christ in their actions and similarly Buddhists reflect Buddha in action.

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

These Buddhist monks are absolutely Buddhist. I could site many dozens of examples of Buddhist assassins and leaders who have murdered, some in the name of Buddhism - many of them are worshiped as heroes alongside canonical figures. What of the Mongolians, and the Three Kings, and Ashoka? And Tibetan monk assassins, and Samurai assassins whose skills in murder were honed by Zen practice?


What of the Fifth Dalai Lama and the command he gave to his Gelugpa death squads?


Make the male lines like trees that have had their roots cut;

Make the female lines like brooks that have dried up in winter;

Make the children and grandchildren like eggs smashed against rocks;

Make the servants and followers like heaps of grass consumed by fire;

Make their dominion like a lamp whose oil has been exhausted;

In short, annihilate any traces of them, even their names.


Even according to Buddhist scripture, those on the path who have not yet achieved enlightenment still have defilements. You assume that a Buddhist is a Buddha, but this is not the case - they're clearly distinguished.


Furthermore, all world religions sanction violence (Buddhism and Christianity included). To view Buddhism as an exception to this likely stems from the Orientalist view that is criticized in the article.


As the living being (sattva) does not exist, the sin of murder does not exist; and since there is no sin of murder, there is no regulation to forbid it. . . . We commit no fault by killing the five aggregates that characterize emptiness and are similar to dreamlike visions or mirror reflections.


celticpassage's picture

Religions don't sanction violence at all: Yet another reification error by 'an intellectual'.
And I don't think religious leaders sanctify violence more than non-religious leaders, that's just a comforting fiction opponents of religion tell themselves.

GordClements@hotmail.com's picture

No but there are many Buddhist monks in Burma that believe that they must react to the Muslims. The institution of Buddhism in Burma is not unanimous about how to respond to the Muslims. There are many who believe that the Muslims must be confronted with force. Fear can affect a persons ways regardless if they are religious or not. Ninety percent of Burmese would call themselves Buddhist

Dominic Gomez's picture

These 90% "call" themselves Buddhist. But apparently that's about the extent of it. The Burmese were "Burmese" long before they began calling themselves "Buddhist".

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

"And I don't think religious leaders sanctify violence more than non-religious leaders, that's just a comforting fiction opponents of religion tell themselves."

This is deceptive because no one ever said this - not in the article or comments. Also, I used the word "sanction." There is some difference in meaning between sanction and sanctify.

celticpassage's picture

If you read my original response correctly you will see that I used the word sanction as well.

"This is deceptive because no one ever said this..."
Yes someone did say that: Me.

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

you're right that no intellectual would agree with you!

celticpassage's picture

I can only take this to mean that you don't get my point.

gloonie's picture

jackalope64, Isn't that really just a self-justification? To say that the monks are "not really Buddhist" or Crusaders weren't "really Christian" would seem to posit an ideal religion immune from any criticism, since by your definition anything bad is excluded from "real" Buddhism or Christianity. If we adopt that position, then we can justify nearly anything, no? Basically we dismiss the acts of the monks as "non-Buddhist" and therefore not our problem. Shouldn't we rather be searching, like the author of the article, for the causes and conditions that have come together to allow Buddhists to behave barbarically?

GordClements@hotmail.com's picture

There are some Buddhists and monasteries that follow the teachings of Buddha in a more intimate way but there are many than do not. They all call themselves Buddhists. Fear is behind the barbarism as it is in America or Canada where I am from or Germany where I live.I am not convinced that the violence in Burma is any greater than the violence in America. In fact it may be a much lower percentage. Burma in general is a very peaceful place and the people are wonderful and friendly. I think that the west can benefit from the way that Burmese people are and relate to each other. But fear can transform us.

celticpassage's picture

You have a point. But so does Jackalope.

The question being asked is not 'how can people do these things', but 'how can Buddhists do these things'. People, unfortunately, have been doing these things since there were people.

It's the behavior of the people in this situation who are called Buddhists which is being questioned. But this cannot be questioned unless the questioner is appealing to the idea of what Buddhism is. This is typically done by invoking an image of how an ideal Buddhist would behave and comparing that to the types of behavior noted in the article, and drawing attention to the wide gap between them.

I think it's reasonable then, to question whether or not the people who are committing these horrendous acts are really Buddhists. Since, to be a Buddhist, or a Christian, etc., is to compare how closely one's internal and external life instantiates the personified ideal of Buddhism (the Buddha) or Christianity (the Christ).

I think the real issue between Jackelope's and your view then, is how closely does one's life (internal and external) have to approximate the internal and external life of the Buddha or the Christ before you can legitimately call yourself a Buddhist or a Christian.

Unfortunately, there is probably no real answer to this question, since it depends on who you ask. The best we can do is to have a kind of consensus on the minimum requirements. However, even this level of agreement may be difficult. Nevertheless, probably most people would agree that you couldn't really call yourself a Buddhist or a Christian if you murder people because they are taking your job, or your land, or your possessions, or because you don't like their culture, food, or skin color.

This judgment would ring far more true to the ears of most if the people you are murdering are children, since they are not and cannot take your job, or your land, or your possessions; they are innocent of offense. And to murder the innocent and defenseless is in my opinion unacceptable to any religion (or even philosophy) worth the name.

If you claim to be a Buddhist, and Buddhism lays great emphasis on awareness of your own mind, and yet you are yet so blind that you cannot see the wrong in these actions, then I agree with Jackalope that you are not really a Buddhist.

Unfortunately, articles like this paint all Buddhists living there with the same brush. I'm sure that there are 'real' Buddhists trying to bring sanity to Buddhist actions by their words and actions (or lack thereof).

pjl0404's picture

This report is particularly disturbing to me as a lay practitioner of Theravada or South Asian Buddhism. I appreciate that we're all suffering beings searching for happiness, nevertheless I'm often staggered by robe wearing 'monks' who seem uninterested in upholding the Teacher's compassionate example or in rising above their own ignorance, cravings and aversions. Easy for me to be saying this while sitting comfortably at home here in the UK, perhaps, but there you go.


GordClements@hotmail.com's picture

Yes I think one of the problems of Burma is that to become a monk is not always a matter of honest reflection and an aware consciousness. Children are encouraged to wear the robes at an early age and there is obviously a lot of prestige in being a monk. I think that with any religion individuals make decisions based on different reasons. All disciplines can be fixations. Look at the Catholic church and the varied and sometimes not so obvious reasons that priests have made this choice.
In some ways the Buddhist religion is no different than other religions. There is a structure that is an external guideline,not so flexible at times, and it is an institution the people become attached to for various reasons.
Sometime we like to think that Buddhism is different in these ways.
I am not so sure of this. These monks are people with attachments no different than nun Buddhists with attachments.

Kenneth Daly's picture

Michael Jaquish rightly highlights that this article disturbs Buddhists and should disturb us, and most importantly calls upon us to respond to what is going on in Burma, such as working with anti-genocide humanitarian groups like the one he mentions. But we should also look into our own hearts and find what we need to change in how our country contributes to this situation before we enlightened American Buddhists start preaching to the Buddhists in Burma.

One particularly disturbing point in Maung Zami's article is that those on the scene who should be the ones, as Mr. Jaquish puts it, reminding "that expressing national identity is an expression of ego attachment," i.e., the monks, are seeming to help foment and participate in the persecution of the Rohingyas. It might be asked: Is the flip-side of the adage that "even the Devil believes in God" that not even Buddhism can keep out the devil who seems to inhabit all organized religions?

GordClements@hotmail.com's picture

I like what you say here. Having spent a lot of time in Burma I think it is fair to say that most monasteries do not practice meditation as we know it in the west. I was amazed to see how many monks would be actively and in addictive ways using betel nut which is a stimulant readily available in Asia.They often seemed to be in a stupor and while staying at a monastery for a week in the Mount Popo area I so no evidence of meditation practices. Buddhists their follow the values that the Buddha represented but are not necessarily involved in a similar process of self discovery. some are. I also had exposure to Sayadaw Mahasi´s influence especially in the Rangoon area. Attachment to values and can be quite superficial in its ability to change people as we know.
I am from Canada but I would agree with the enlightened American Buddhism statement. America and Canada have their own bridges to cross in terms of effects of violence and rampant belief in collective individualism.

Michael Jaquish's picture

This excellent update on the suffering of the Rohingya people at the hands of Buddhists was very timely for me because I happen to be working with an anti-genocide humanitarian aid group called 'Our Humanity in the Balance' that is contemplating action in the Rohingya region. Other recent reports from organizations such as Aljazeera News tend to report the events without reaching as deeply into the causes like this writer has done. I really appreciate Maung Zarni taking the time to do this.

I must say however, as an American Buddhist, the situation is very alarming on a spiritual level as well as an emotional level. Events such as this cannot help but raise the question, "how can any people aware of the dangers of ego-fulfillment and the need to experience compassion and empathy for all beings to reduce suffering in the world consciously take action that is so obviously contrary to everything the Buddha taught?"

I suppose any answer to this question would have to address the powerful hold that ego has over all of us. Those of us who have stepped on the path tend to forget that the majority of the people around us have not yet really taken that step... even many of those who may claim to be Buddhist. It is important to keep this in mind because if we seriously desire to reduce suffering in the world we must reach out to the suffering actively at every opportunity to spread the Dharma... even to those who profess to be aware of the Dharma.

A Christian once told me, "Even the Devil believes in God". Good point. Knowing something does no good if one does not put that knowledge to work.

Someone needs to remind the Buddhists in Burma and all over the world that expressing national identity is an expression of ego attachment that will inevitably lead to suffering. Perhaps that someone needs to be you.

GordClements@hotmail.com's picture

I just returned from a month long trip to Burma where my wife and I annually volunteer our services at eye clinics through out the country. She is an Eye Doctor and as an artist I hang aroundi the monastery´s where she worked. I have been meditating for many years and have taken part in many Theravadan retreats over the years both in America and outside. While I was there I had an opportunity to speak with many Burmese about this topic.We spent some time at Ngapali Beach area n the mid north east and had an opportunity to speak with local Islamic artist friends there about the situation.
At one point I was speaking with Sayadaw U Nayaka of the Phaung Daw Oo Monastery and School in Mandalay about this issue and I raised with him that there was some question of what is occurring for the Burmese Buddhists and an apparent intolerance of the Muslims in Burma. He said quite simply,"fear". "Buddhism is the way of life here in Burma. Buddhism is open and accepting and the Islamic religion is perceived to be quite rigid, dogmatic and aggressive in it`s intentions" They are afraid that the Buddhist way will become taken over by this extreme way.
With the dictatorship the Burmese people did not have to deal with these kinds of problems. The government did the dirty work. Now in the movement towards increased openness, the people must learn to deal with this kind of fear. Aung San Suu Kyi has been somewhat quiet about this issue but I did come across and article that explored her thoughts about this issue while I was there. What I understood from her is that I think that she understands that a process is required of Burma and its citizens and that this will take time. There is no infrastructure, process or experience to deal with civil problems such as this. They are humans and imperfect in their human form and it will be a learning experience for them. I was very aware that meditation and self learning are absent from many monastery`s and the focus of Buddhist monks in Burma. Despite this there is an acceptance of Buddhist values which I believe will ultimately make a difference. Until than they will fumble with this and the importance of international feedback and support is essential.

celticpassage's picture

Aaw. How awful for them.
Rather than international support they need international condemnation and pressure to end their barbaric treatment of others.

Rigid and extreme ideologies are best dealt with by laws and appropriate enforcement of those laws not by murder of families.

The situation, if tolerable to most Buddhists there, speaks very poorly of Buddhism's ability to actually change its practitioners. If the country is Buddhist and in that ubiquitous support for Buddhism there is an inability to deal with social change except by descending to the lowest of the low, the most barbaric of responses, then perhaps Buddhism should be scrapped: It isn't working.

GordClements@hotmail.com's picture

I have lived in Nepal for two years and visited Burma a number of times. In the parts of the world where Buddhism has been the way of life for close to two thousand years it is more often about religion and ritual than it is about coming to a way of self awareness.
I am amazed how people can believe that policy changes will change people. The Burmese government had been setting policy for fifty years and the only thing that it did was prevent the people from being directly involved in any kind of process in which they were encouraged to take responsibility. It isnt a simple rational action of changing policies or scrapping a religion. Western ways will eliminate Buddhism from Burma soon enough anyway. Just look what is occurring in Thailand. The Burmese people must come to take responsibility. There are many examples of western democracies where people do not take responsibility for violence in their country. Look at America in fact. Why is it so difficult to change policies regarding gun assaults that are responsible for a far greater percentage of violent deaths per capita than anything happening in Burma.