Compassion, humility, and tranquillity: these are the images that we have typically come to associate with Buddhism in the West. It is a religion that preaches non-violence, and many in the Europe and America have adopted its philosophies as a result.
It may then come as a surprise that militant Buddhist groups in Burma (Myanmar) are actively persecuting the minority Muslim population. In stark contrast to the Saffron Revolution of 2007 when Buddhist monks marched peaceably with their alms bowls, Buddhist mobs, led by the radical monk Ashin Wirathu, have so far killed more than 200 Muslims and forced more than 150,000 from their homes. But many are asking how the 45-year old monk, dubbed the “Buddhist Bin Laden”, has been able to galvanise such high levels of religious intolerance from the Buddhist community?
Sitting cross-legged in his orange robes, with a shaved head as is required when part of the Buddhist monastic community, Wirathu’s appearance in no way suggests that this man could be the leader of the nationalist Buddhist movement known as the 969, who are responsible for what is happening in Burma at this time. The image is one of serenity and calm. He speaks in a slow and intent manner, picking his words carefully and meticulously in explaining his unique breed of Buddhist radicalism.
It is the weakness of nationalism, he says, which has forced him to preach publicly. Over the next fifteen minutes, Wirathu speaks of how Muslims are buying up more and more property, of how they have a monopoly over the construction industry and set their own prices, before speaking in detail of their human rights abuses and how they are attempting to gain positions of power in government.
“Our enemy would become powerful,” the monk continues, “And more the dangerous for us. They would one day take our resources from us.” He urges Buddhists to eat only at 969 restaurants, shop only at 969 shops and use only 969 taxis. He finishes by explaining how if the country’s Buddhist population acts in this nationalistic sense, then the ‘golden Burmese’ will win this fight.
In a speech at the University of Maryland in May, the Dalai Lama spoke out against the actions of Wirathu and the 969, emphasising that a true practitioner of the faith would not permit such “violence” and “bullying of other people”. Indeed, he urges his fellow Buddhists if they develop any type of negative emotion toward the Muslim community to instead turn to the face of the Buddha for guidance.
What level of influence the Dalai Lama, spiritual figurehead of the Buddhist religion, can realistically leverage in this conflict—diplomatically, politically or spiritually speaking—given the shocking displays of violence that Wirathu’s radical preaching has aroused in recent months, is open for debate.
Behind the placid visage and monastic attire, the words of Wirathu have struck a nationalistic chord above all else, calling for the unity of the Buddhist community against a common enemy. Wirathu’s harangues are grounded in socio-economic grievances suffered by the majority Buddhists, who constitute around 90% of the population in Burma, at the hands of the minority Rohingya, one million stateless Muslims, many of whom migrated from nearby Bangladesh.
Dr Muang Zarni, a Burmese human rights activist explained in an interview with Vice Magazine what he perceives to be the roots of the current conflict. He blames the 969 movement for the current situation, heralding them a neo-Nazi group. In the same interview, Dr Zarni claims that over the past 50 years since the junta came to power in Burma.
“There has been a consistent pattern of the military leadership using proxy organisations within Burmese communities across the country to incite violence against targeted groups, be they dissidents, Chinese, or now, Muslims.”
Indeed, there are reports that in the city of Meikhtila in March, where Buddhist mobs killed at least 43 people—most of the victims Muslim—and displaced a further 12,000, the Burmese police present simply observed from a distance, reluctant to step in to diffuse the conflagration. Similar reports from other towns show mosques and even a Muslim orphanage have been set alight when tensions have erupted, but local authorities are either unable or unwilling to prevent the violence. Not surprisingly, many of Burma’s Muslim population are perturbed by recent events and fearful to leave the safety of their homes.
However, it is not only Burma in this region which has been plagued by instances of such superficially religious unrest. In nearby Sri Lanka, which only recently saw the end of a bloody 26-year conflict between the Sinhalese government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE), there have been reports of Buddhist mobs setting fire to Muslim-owned clothing stores and warehouses in Colombo, and a separatist group known as the Bodu Bala Sena (the Buddhist Brigade) who have protested violently against the issue of halal slaughter.
Whilst allegations of the 969 being a neo-Nazi, nationalist movement fail to grasp the full import of such a statement, the charge holds true as a statement of what, at a very basic level, is happening in Burma at present. Speaking calmly and candidly, Wirathu presumes in no way to disguise his nationalist sentiments. Whilst he does not urge violence against the Muslims, he does not denounce it, and in his words the inference of justified intolerance is clear; the Muslim community is marked as pariah.
Should the international community be concerned that the 969 has developed into an organised movement that is much more than sporadic displays of extremist violence? The movement is reported to have enlisted monasteries across the nation which now spread the radical message through Sunday schools, and by handing out stickers and distributing pamphlets and DVDs.
Wirathu’s radical message, contrary to the tolerance which Buddhism teaches, is spreading. Western nations should watch Burma closely over the coming months, as if history teaches nothing at all of young nations suffering social and political instability, it is the irreversibility of the triumph of an idea.