by Susan Hayward
At a monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar, my path into the receiving room of Buddhist monk Ashin U Wirathu led me past a series of grotesque photographs of monks killed in violence between Buddhist and Muslims in southern Thailand, images illustrating the concerns of the monk I was about to meet. A week earlier, Time Magazine had released its latest edition with the face of U Wirathu above the words “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” To many in the West, it seemed an anomaly, the pairing of the seemingly pacifist Buddhist tradition with acts of terror. How had Buddhist monks in Myanmar come to propagate anti-Muslim bigotry, violence, and exclusionary policy?
In truth, of course, the current moment has seeds in the past. As Matthew J. Walton and I describe in a recent Policy Studies publication by the East-West Center, current Buddhist monk-led movements, 969 and MaBaTha, in Myanmar can be understood as contemporary manifestations of traditional monastic mobilization for social, political, and religious ends. These movements are grounded in an anxious commitment to defend their traditions against foreign elements both within and outside the country. Without challenging these nationalist Buddhist arguments and addressing underlying political, economic, and social grievances, Myanmar’s transition to democracy could fail. To address the anxieties fueling the violence, Myanmar needs a multifaceted approach that incorporates Buddhist counterarguments and strengthens the rule of law.
After almost five decades of international isolation and repressive rule by a succession of military governments, Myanmar began a gradual transition to democracy with the handover of power to a quasi-civilian government in March 2011. While expectations for the genuineness and depth of these reforms were muted, hope surged when the new government passed a series of laws that allowed for freedom of assembly and press and legalized the democratic movement, and also released scores of political prisoners, including democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
But before long, violent episodes broke out, often led by young Buddhist men targeting Muslim communities. The violence began between Buddhist Rakhines and Rohingya Muslims, but soon spread to other ethnic groups. While the attackers were primarily lay, some monks were accused of involvement in violence, while a precious few of their colleagues sought to protect Muslims in their monasteries, refute anti-Muslim rumors, and dispel angry mobs. Concurrently, monk-led Buddhist nationalist groups arose, including the 969 Movement, and later, MaBaTha, which has advocated for passage of laws that unfavorably target Myanmar’s Muslim community.
Many fear that this violence will turn back the reform process. Historically, the military has used internal violence to justify its authoritarian rule. Moreover, in a country in which Buddhist monks are revered, few seem willing to challenge these movements. When some women’s rights activists criticized proposed legislation requiring Buddhist women to receive permission from authorities before marrying a Muslim man, they were verbally attacked in public and social media.
In the shrine room in Mandalay, U Wirathu spoke softly, steadily, but passionately to me. “In truth, all communities are afraid,” he said. He explained that Buddhists and Muslims both feel the police cannot offer adequate protection. He expressed frustration with a Western media that he perceives to be unsympathetic to Myanmar Buddhists’ concerns. “We know that the Muslim world is seeking to spread its religion and influence in this country,” he said, “and if we are not careful, Myanmar will go the way of Afghanistan,” a country once home to a thriving Buddhist community now long gone.
To address these anxieties, which are manifesting in the midst of swift social, political, and economic changes as the country opens up to a deluge of foreign interests, requires a multifaceted approach. Buddhist counterarguments will help challenge current nationalist rhetoric and promote attitudes that can foster tolerance. There is a great deal of fodder within the corpus of Theravada Buddhism that can advance these rhetorical challenges. For example, a monk in Mandalay involved in interfaith peacebuilding argued that proper defense of Buddhism is cultivated through right practice, not through aggression and violence, which only invites enemies. In a public speech in 2013, the well-known monk Sitagu Sayadaw appealed to Theravada Buddhist scriptural teachings when he argued that one must test rumors and claims, analyzing them critically rather than accepting hearsay on face value. Others have appealed to Buddhist principles of compassion, equanimity, and non-attachment.
However, Buddhist counterarguments alone won’t bring an end to communal violence. Words by themselves won’t fix the structural injustices that lie at the root of these and other inter-ethnic conflicts in Myanmar. Thus arguments for pluralism must be complemented by a series of political, economic, and legal reforms to address insecurities and long-standing inequalities. While the reform efforts in Myanmar, choreographed from the center, have been arguably successful compared to other countries undergoing political reform (especially those associated with the Arab Spring), much more remains to be done. Key will be strengthening rule of law so that all citizens feel adequately protected by police and assured that state institutions are capable and willing to ensure equality and justice.
As the country prepares for its presidential election in 2015, managing Buddhist nationalist groups and communal violence will be crucial. Without so doing, the people of Myanmar may lose that which they’ve fought so hard to achieve.
About the Author
Susan Hayward is a Senior Program Officer in the Religion and Peacebuilding Program at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC, where she leads the Institute’s programming in Myanmar. She is pursuing her PhD in Religious Studies and Theology from Georgetown University, focusing on Buddhist and Christian responses to authoritarianism and violence in Myanmar. She has an MDiv from Harvard Divinity School and an MA from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She can be found on Twitter at @SusieOHayward.