Burma on Fire: What’s Behind the Current Conflict Between Buddhists and Muslims?
From BPF’s Co-Directors: It is with heavy hearts that we have followed the news of ongoing Buddhist nationalist violence against Muslims in Myanmar/Burma. Many have asked, quite understandably, why we have remained silent. Other prominent Buddhists are speaking out — why not BPF? To put it simply: we have been waiting, looking, to hear from Buddhists on the ground in Burma, organizing their own interfaith work for peace. We know it is happening, but of course it is difficult and sometimes dangerous to spread news of this work.
Aware of an historical context of Orientalism, in which Asian peoples are portrayed as dangerous, and outrage from non-Asians in the U.S. too often reifies this stereotype (another recent example: U.S. media painting rape epidemics in India as a problem inherent to “their culture,” ignoring or minimizing the crisis of rape culture in the United States itself), our hope is to relate to interfaith peace work in Burma in solidarity and support, not in any way as saviors.
But silence can only continue so long before it becomes neutrality in practice. Therefore, we want to clearly state: we support all efforts to end the Buddhist nationalist violence in Burma. We are deeply grateful to those doing this work, including organizers and participants in the recent Myanmar Muslims Genocide Awareness Convention (many thanks to Rev. Danny Fisher for sharing the events of the conference so thoroughly and thoughtfully, from the perspective of a Buddhist minister); Hozan Alan Senauke of Clear View Project and the International Network of Engaged Buddhists; Dr. Maung Zarni; and many others.
Thank you, dear readers, for your patience. Please contact us if you have Burma-related news and media that you would like us to share on Turning Wheel.
Katie Loncke and Dawn Haney
The increasing conflict and violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma has been on the minds of many practitioners here in North America. Indeed, it was a mere 5 years ago that the world was watching tens of thousands of monks peacefully assemble, day after day, in the streets of the capital Yangoon. Also known as the Saffron Revolution, the protests ultimately marked the beginning of a slow shift towards a more democratic government that continues to unfold today. With the release from house arrest, and subsequent election of long time National League for Democracy Leader Aung San Suu Kyi, it appeared that Burma was moving in the direction of an open, democratic government for all.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t really been the case. The violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority, which Burmese dissident Dr. Maung Zarni emphasizes is a genocide, is only one example amongst many in Burma over the past several decades. Campaigns of suppression, forced removal and murder of ethnic and religious minorities have been quite common. During my years as an Adult ESL teacher, I had dozens of ethnic Karen students who had been driven from their homelands in eastern Burma. Their decades-long struggle against Burmese military and government oppression is one of numerous conflicts around the world that can be traced, at least in part, to colonialism and empire. In addition to the Karen, longstanding patterns of human rights abuses have documented by the Burmese military and government against the Chin people, another ethnic minority groups, as well as other, smaller minorities in Burma.
Perhaps the biggest difference between many of the others and the current one against the Rohingya Muslims, is that this one is being driven by monks. The 969 Movement that is sweeping the nation, and which is behind the controversial marriage law attempting to ban “interfaith” marriages, claims its aim is to “defend and preserve” Buddhism in Burma. And while it’s received widespread condemnation internationally, it has created yet another complex divide amongst the people of Burma.
Furthermore, this isn’t the first time this has happened. In 1942, there were a series of bloody conflicts between Buddhist (who were allied with the Japanese during WWII), and Rohingya Muslims (who were allied with the British). Maung Zarni suggests that one element of the current situation is the racism that developed during the colonial period.
In a rather bad way, the current Rohingya genocide in Burma is a case in which different forces in society and politics have converged to create, basically, a living hell for this particular group. These forces include historically grounded Burmese anti-Indian racism that isn’t just directed against Muslims, but rather against the people of the Indian subcontinent. That racism arose out of the context of British colonial rule of Burma, which created a racially and ethnically divided economy—a colonial political economy—where the British occupied the top echelon of administrative positions and economic control.
While the legacy of colonial looms large in Burma, there are issues converging to bring about massive amounts of suffering. Hundreds of Muslims have been injured or murdered, and thousands have fled their homelands. Buddhists are divided by class, a growing political movement, and intensified, mostly negative international attention. Over the next few days, we will offer readers a roundup of quality articles and blog posts covering different aspects of the conflict. Feel free to share your thoughts and reactions along the way.