The Rohingya crisis in Myanmar points to an unsettling truth: Buddhism can be as violent as any other religion. “The idea that Buddhists are always peaceful is a western illusion”, says Tilburg University researcher Deborah de Koning.
Buddhism is generally not associated with religious violence or extremism – and certainly not with the type of violence that amounts to the violation of human rights, such as killings, rape and forced displacement. But as the tragedy of the Rohingya crisis unfolds, it seems that the west needs to take a hard look at its tendency to romanticize Buddhist culture.
‘Death to the Rohingya’
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is one of the most devoutly Buddhist countries in the world. It’s the land of golden temples, candlelit monasteries and monks dressed in orange robes draped to leave one shoulder bare. Recently, however, a very different picture of Myanmar and its Buddhist population has started to emerge. The Myanmar army – commanded by Buddhist generals – has unleashed an ethnic cleansing operation against a vulnerable Muslim minority. While hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled the country, survivors are telling horrific tales of rape and killings by the Myanmar military.
Shockingly, the Rohingya are not only targeted by the army. Buddhist nationalists are participating in the burning of villages and the stirring up of violent hate against the Rohingya. Buddhist monks have taken to the streets, not chanting traditional mantras but hateful slogans such as ‘We don’t want Muslims!’.
Albertina Nugteren, associate professor at Tilburg University and an expert on Buddhism, is not surprised to see Buddhist ultra-nationalism. She is well aware that it exists. “Buddhist extremism is nothing new, it has existed for at least 150 years”, she says. “But I have to admit that even I was shocked when I saw images of monks performing a mudra gesture – the raised open-hand gesture which Buddha is commonly depicted making – while they had written ‘Death to the Rohingya’ in their palms.”
Tilburg University researcher Deborah de Koning, who is writing a dissertation on Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka under the supervision of Albertina Nugteren, explains that the west holds an overly romantic view of Buddhism. “The idea that all Buddhists are non-violent and vegetarian is a very western idea”, she says.
In the western world, Buddhism is considered a ‘way of life’ or a philosophy rather than a religion. It’s about mindfulness, good karma and compassion. In the do-it-yourself meditation books that we keep on our shelves, there is generally no mention of monks with guns or Buddhist crimes against humanity. In fact, the very term ‘Buddhist extremism’ seems ridiculous to most westerners. We all know of atrocities committed in the name of other religions, but Buddhism? No way.
According to Deborah de Koning, it’s important to realize that in a country like Myanmar, where a Buddhist majority lives alongside many different minority ethnic groups, Buddhism cannot be separated from the political and cultural environment. “It’s true that non-violence is central to Buddhist teachings, and that Buddhists are traditionally taught not to get involved with ‘earthly’ matters such as politics. But in reality, Buddhists do get involved”, she explains. “In countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka, where Buddhism is deeply rooted in the political system, Buddhism is not untainted by power and conflict.”
Monks and the military
“Buddhists are no saints”, says Albertina Nugteren, who has spent more than forty years researching the various religions and cultures of South Asia. “Nothing human is alien to them.”
Importantly, Buddhism is not a single religious tradition. It’s a very diverse system of beliefs and practices, Nugteren explains. “In Asia, one may indeed find the kind of Buddhism that is very spiritual, intellectual and meditative. But mainly there’s popular Buddhism, which is a lot like any other popular religion.”
And, like any other popular religion, popular Buddhism is prone to corruption and power politics. Myanmar’s generals, who ruled the country for nearly half a century before military rule was replaced by a military-backed government, still hold tremendous power. “Those generals not only practice Buddhism, they’ve also used Buddhism to gain and to maintain power – by making generous donations to Buddhist temples, for example, and by making public appearances at important celebrations”, Nugteren says. “Buddhist monks have benefited from the nexus between religion and power, much like Catholic or Protestant clerics have benefited from their alliances with power holders in western history. The camaraderie between the Burmese military and Buddhist monks may come as a shock to us, but from a geopolitical perspective such a camaraderie is hardly surprising.”
Still, the nexus between Buddhist monks and the Burmese military doesn’t explain the violent persecution of the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority. Where does Myanmar’s anti-Rohingya sentiment come from? “I think the hatred towards Rohingya has been brewing for many decades, and in recent years it got nastier”, says Farzana Hai, who has just completed her Master’s degree in Organization Studies at Tilburg University. She is from Bangladesh, where at least half a million Rohingya refugees have sought safety over the past few months.
“The way Rohingyas are portrayed in Myanmar is really awful”, Hai says. “The government represents them as insects rather than human beings, just because they are Muslim. I think the hatred towards them from Myanmar citizens is understandable. It’s the government that is making the Rohingya unwanted, by broadcasting misleading information about them.”
‘The government represents the Rohingya as insects rather than human beings’
Although Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants, Albertina Nugteren says that some of the Rohingya settled in the country’s rugged and remote northern lands hundreds of years ago. “Myanmar is not as densely populated as other countries in the region. It has a lot of uninhabited, forgotten areas. For many years, nobody really paid attention to the Rohingya. They worked their own lands, they spoke their own language. Tensions didn’t arise until more and more Bangladeshis, not necessarily Rohingyas, crossed the border from the densely populated Bangladesh to Myanmar. Over the past ten years or so, the conflict grew more and more violent.”
According to Nugteren, it’s important to stress that the Rohingya conflict is not a religious conflict. “When the international press started to report on the situation about four or five years ago, it was immediately framed as a conflict between two religious groups. I think that’s a very lazy view of the situation”, she says. “It’s much more complex. When there are tensions over territorial claims or economic issues, one often sees that religious differences are used to justify or fuel those conflicts. That’s what’s happening in Myanmar, and that’s what we’ve seen in countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka as well.”
Fueled by underlying issues, anti-Muslim sentiments are spreading fast in countries surrounding Myanmar. “Buddhists in countries like Sri Lanka are voicing their support for the Myanmar government. Existing anti-Muslim sentiments are intensified by the situation in Myanmar”, Deborah de Koning says. “Although there’s only a handful of Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka, a protest march against Rohingya refugees was held in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo a few weeks ago. Buddhist monks participated in the march as well. They carried signs saying ‘We Sri Lankans stand with Myanmar’ and ‘No Rohingyas’.”
Based on her own conversations with Buddhists in Sri Lanka, De Koning concludes that there is a common belief that Buddhist identity must be protected. “Sinhalese Buddhists often complain that Muslims have so many children. They fear that the Muslim community will eventually become dominant in Sri Lanka.”
“In some countries in South Asia, there is a fear of Muslims”, Albertina Nugteren says. “Not because of their religion, but because people fear that rich oil countries will gain considerable power in Asia, bringing more strict forms of Islam to the continent.” As we’ve seen on our own continent, fear creates the perfect circumstances for nationalism and extremism to thrive. And Buddhists are no exception, Nugteren explains: “There is Buddhist extremism, just like there is Muslim extremism.”
In crowded Bangladesh, where Islam is the largest religion, it’s not the influx of Muslims that is causing concern. It’s the influx of people in general. “Reactions of Bangladeshi towards Rohingya refugees are mixed”, Farzana Hai says. “The prime minister of Bangladesh has accepted the Rohingya with open arms, and a large part of the country’s citizens is supportive of that. But there are also people who are concerned, and some are unwilling to accept Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh is a poor country and it doesn’t produce enough to feed its own people. ”
Hai – herself a Muslim – doesn’t believe Buddhism is violent, even though some of its practitioners have proven to be. When asked whether she thinks the west tends to romanticize Buddhism as a pacifist religion, she answers: “There may be some Buddhists who are responsible for spreading violence, but we cannot blame a whole community when only a few of them are radicalists.” Perhaps we should meditate on that.