Buddhist Nationalism in Burma

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

Institutionalized racism against the Rohingya Muslims led Burma to genocide By Maung Zarni 

This was originally published in Tricycle, Spring 2013. 

For 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. 

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. 

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.”

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. 

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

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. 

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