Killing in the name of Buddhism

Tom Fawthrop investigates what is behind Buddhist monks inciting attacks on Muslim communities in Myanmar.

IT was not so long ago that Myanmarese Buddhist monks dressed in saffron robes organised brave protests and peaceful processions against the brutal military junta led by General Than Shwe. It was dubbed the Saffron Revolution. In 2007 their Gandhian non-violent resistance was watched with awe and commanded the respect of millions around the globe.

These images etched in our collective memory are hard to square with an ugly new reality in Myanmar - the sight of Buddhist gangs setting Muslim communities ablaze. Some monks have played a vanguard role in instigating this anti-Muslim campaign which has seen acts of collective arson and racist brutality.

How can the same religion known throughout the world for its commitment to peace, meditation and reflection engage in hate-filled sermons against the Muslim minority?

Muslim-owned shops and homes in Lashio in Shan state were the most recent victims of a Buddhist motorbike gang in June. Shan researcher Sai Latt commented that 'the government and the police are not doing anything at all to clamp down on extremist hate propaganda against Muslims'.

The killings of Muslim Rohingyas in western Rakhine state that started the violence in 2012 have spread this year to the wider Muslim population. In March, systemic arson razed to the ground 1,300 Muslim-owned houses and shops in the central town of Meikhtila. Armed Buddhist gangs later brought terror to 14 peaceful Muslim communities in towns and villages in central Myanmar. Acting with total impunity, they moved south to Pegu division, unleashing another wave of havoc in Okkan district.

Is the violence the inevitable result of reformist changes in the country that have brought more freedom of expression in Myanmar with the emergence of a quasi-civilian government after 50 years of brutal military repression?

Certainly that is what presidential spokesman and deputy minister of information Ye Htut would have us believe. 'We cannot avoid this time of chaos,' he told AFP news agency. He insisted the wave of hate speech and violence targeting Muslims was the 'ugly by-product' of new freedoms allowed by the reformist government.

Whereas Ye Htut claims the government 'cannot control the chaos', Sai Latt, a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University in Canada, claims that there is a clearly orchestrated pattern to these anti-Muslim attacks.

Latt says the pattern is clear: 'Prior to the riots, anti-Muslim literature arrives in a town, followed by monks preaching "969" sermons in the vicinity. On the day when violence breaks out, truckloads of strangers including monks have appeared on the scene. In each case an incident takes place that triggers the anger of the Buddhists.'

Shortly after that, all hell breaks loose as angry mobs cry 'Kill the Muslims', attack mosques and set fire to their homes while carefully avoiding damage to nearby Buddhist-owned shops and houses.

According to Sai Latt, 'there is never any preventive action. Whatever happened or however things turned out, the president's spokesman, Ye Htut, will blame Muslims and cover up the incidents on his Facebook page'.

Originally the numerals '969' symbolise the virtues of the Buddha, Buddhist practices and the Buddhist community. But now '969' has been hijacked as a symbol of anti-Muslim agitation.

Lack of effective response

The central town of Meikhtila bears the ugly legacy of recent anti-Muslim violence. Large sections of the town have been reduced to rubble and a few broken walls - all that remains of what used to be a thriving Muslim community of almost 1,300 houses, shops and mosques. This writer found compelling evidence of state complicity among the eyewitness accounts of the actions of residents during the four days of mob attacks on the Muslim community which resulted in an official count of 42 deaths although other reports indicated more than a hundred Muslim victims and a few Buddhists.

The government of President Thein Sein, so active in its efforts to assure Western audiences that the new Myanmar will never return to the dark days of the previous ruling military junta, has so far failed to take any concrete action to end the brutal spiral of attacks on Muslim communities.

Thein Sein's periodic appeals for 'an end to communal violence' are less than convincing. He never condemns Buddhist extremism but on the contrary has defended extremist monk U Wirathu as a 'true son of Buddha'.

Bill Davis, former Burma project director for Physicians for Human Rights, and Andrea Gittleman, the group's senior legal adviser, reported that 'in Meikhtila, investigators found that police were complicit in the violence against Muslims ... they marched unarmed Muslims toward an armed civilian mob, then refused to protect them from beating, stoning, and murder; they did not help injured Muslims; and they failed to apprehend perpetrators'.

'The general lack of an effective response from the central government is a monumental failure to protect its citizens from organised and targeted violence,' they said in a report.

UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said he received reports of 'state involvement in some of the acts of violence, and of instances where the military, police and other civilian law enforcement forces have been standing by while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well-organised ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs'.

Religious conflict or a politically stoked intrigue?

In many parts of the world racial and religious prejudice and bigotry have been manipulated by autocratic rulers to stay in power, or by colonial powers to hang on to their stolen territories.

Ashin Issariya, one of the monks who led the 2007 Saffron Revolution protests against the previous military government, told this writer, 'Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar have lived together harmoniously for decades.'

The Irrawaddy, a Myanmarese news service with offices in Chiangmai and Yangon, reported that 'Muslims began arriving in Burma as traders and mercenaries in the 13th century and lived alongside Buddhists in relative peace for centuries. In the 19th century, under the reformist King Mindon, mosques were built and thousands of Muslims served in Burmese infantry and artillery divisions. Mindon even helped build a hostel in Mecca for Burmese Muslims making the pilgrimage or hajj.'

The editor-in-chief of the Open News journal, Thiha Saw, in a recent interview explained, 'Overall we have a history of religious harmony in the country. But the anti-Muslim card is the trump card used by the military at critical times. It is an old trick. The Buddhist mobs attacking mosques are outsiders. These so-called Buddhists are often hired from the ranks of the unemployed, and it is alleged they receive training from former military officers.'

A recurring theme from locals is that 'outsiders' are bussed in by trucks and nearly all of them are armed with sticks, swords and machetes. An incident soon happens between a Muslim and a Buddhist that provides the spark and then the gangs swing into action, agitating and enlisting locals to join the ensuing riot. Muslim-owned homes and shops are demolished and, along with them, previous inter-communal and religious harmony.

In Okkan district a monk in robes was at the wheel of a bulldozer engaged in destroying the walls of a mosque. Issariya laughs in disbelief, 'A real monk cannot drive a bulldozer, this is not part of our training.'

Discerning the truth through the fog of propaganda and the chaos is not made any easier when you have both extremist monks like U Wirathu and fake monks carrying out an offensive - the one with inflammatory rhetoric complemented by a fake monk bulldozing a mosque.

The peace activist monk Issariya told this writer, 'This is a well-planned campaign by a group of people who use religious bigotry to further their political ambitions. Certain forces yearn for the return of a military government. General Than Shwe [the supreme leader of the former military junta] is more powerful than President Thein Sein.'

Bitter divisions inside Myanmarese Buddhism

Most of the media coverage, both domestic and international, has narrowly focused on the anti-Muslim rantings spewed out by U Wirathu from a monastery near Mandalay.

He has claimed that Muslims commit virtually all the rape cases in Myanmar, that their mosques and assets are being secretly financed by the Saudis, and that they plan to eventually take over the whole country.

The Buddha preached calm and contemplation but Wirathu's agenda calls for the opposite. 'Now is not the time for calm,' the 46-year-old monk has declared while denigrating Muslims. 'Now is the time to rise up, to make your blood boil.' He was quoted as saying this in the 1 July issue of Time magazine, which featured a cover photograph of the monk with the caption 'The face of Buddhist terror'. That issue was banned inside Myanmar.

Extremist monks led by the publicity-hungry Wirathu are preaching a brand of pure Buddhist nation-state where there is no place for the followers of Islam. Speeches and rallies led by Wirathu, which resemble more a political campaign than a call to enlightenment, have invariably happened in the vicinity of Meikhtila, Okkan and other districts just before the violence there broke out.

Buddhism in Myanmar has been battered and divided by the anti-Muslim campaign. Extremist monks like Wirathu have garnered worldwide attention for their racist views. But Buddhist networks which assert the teachings of the Buddha and the path of peace, religious tolerance and social justice have largely been ignored by both local and international media.

At Meikhtila's Zay Yar Bun monastery, senior monk Udamme Thara said, 'I know more than 1,000 Muslims fleeing from their attackers received sanctuary inside our monasteries. I am sure almost all temples provided safety and saved their lives.'

Ashin Issariya's peace network of 800 monks, meanwhile, provided humanitarian aid to the victims of Meikhtila and organised shipments of rice, clothes and other aid to IDP (internally displaced people) camps for fleeing Muslims.

'We were not expecting this violence when we chanted for peace and reconciliation in 2007,' said Ashin Nyana Nika, the abbot of Pauk Jadi monastery who has attended a meeting sponsored by Muslim groups to discuss the issue.

Ashin Sanda Wara, the head of a monastic school in Yangon, has been quoted by the New York Times as saying that the monks in Myanmar are divided nearly equally between moderates and extremists.

Okkan-based Shwe Nya was reported by The Irrawaddy as telling a gathering of his fellow monks, 'We need to work together to stop this violence. This is not only good for Okkan, but good for Myanmar. If this conflict spreads to the whole country based on religious issues ... there will be a coup. So if this continues to happen, Myanmar is headed in a dark direction.'

If a military faction or hardliners inside the cabinet are playing the anti-Muslim card, the real objective is probably not to stage another coup. The 'dark direction' is more likely to be towards entrenching the role of the armed forces in the country's new quasi-civilian configuration by seeking to convince the grassroots population that a strong army is still needed to protect the nation from falling into further chaos.

It may also be part of the ruling party's strategy to cling on to power and prevent reformist parties such as Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy from winning the 2015 general election.

During all the persecution of the Rohingyas and other Muslim communities, Suu Kyi, who has won many awards abroad for her moral leadership, has maintained a steadfast silence. Whenever cornered by the media, she has retreated into bland pleas for 'communal violence to end' and argued that it would be unhelpful to take sides.

But since May 2012, Suu Kyi has undergone her own metamorphosis, from iconic moral voice against dictatorship to a politician who is hoping  to  lead  her  NLD  party  to  victory  in  the  2015  polls.  Many fear that the anti-Muslim tide is being whipped up to undermine her chances of victory.

One of the few public statements countering the anti-Muslim prejudice came from senior Buddhist leader and respected scholar Sitagu Sayadaw in a speech at the Myanmar Peace Centre in Yangon on 30 March. He declared, 'I deeply denounce these religious, racial and commercial conflicts with no exceptions. Lord Buddha teaches non-violence. I firmly believe other religious denominations share the same concept, and no god prescribed conflict of any kind.' He told his audience that all religions 'aim for eternal peace of mankind'.

Sadly, his noble call to follow the teachings of the Buddha has received little attention in the Burmese-language media.

Any  hope  of  Myanmar  advancing  towards  democracy  will  depend in  part  on  the  outcome  of  this  struggle  over  the  soul  of Myanmarese  Buddhism  -  whether it results in a regression into ethnic chauvinism or an enlightenment that supports human rights of all religions and races.                           

Tom Fawthrop is an author, roving reporter and  filmmaker. He directed Where Have All the Fish Gone? (Eureka Films), a documentary about the damming of the Mekong River.

*Third World Resurgence No. 275, July 2013, pp 36-38