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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.

Much gratitude,

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.



 

Comments (13)

  • Murray Reiss

    Dr. Maung Zarni emphasizing that the violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority is a genocide does not necessarily make it one. I’d appreciate a little more discriminating wisdom around this issue and hope to find it in the posts you mention are coming over the next few days.

  • Murray Reiss

    Since posting my (no doubt too hasty) comment above I’ve followed the link to the Myanmar Muslims Genocide Awareness Convention where a number of other witnesses and people who seem to know what they’re talking about also call the violence “genocide.” It rubs up hard against at least two of my identities — Jewish, Buddhist — so my resistance is perhaps not all that surprising, but I bow to what appears to be the abysmal reality.

  • nathan

    You may or may not like my upcoming articles. Have to say that multiple human rights groups used terms like “ethnic cleansing” and “massacre” to describe what Buddhists are doing in Burma. Labels like “neo-Nazis” have also been used by members of the press fron various nations, but I chose to leave that stuff out of my post.

    Perhaps Dr. Zarni’s language is too strong. I have to wonder though what you are looking for exactly when you say “more discriminating wisdom.” If it’s just the term genocide and what it implies, I can understand your concern. However, having read a lot of posts and comments on these issues over the past few days, it’s also very clear to me that a) many Buddhists are pretty squeamish about this situation and b) far too many want to downplay Buddhist-led violence and killing, and some are more than sympathetic to the anti-Muslim sentinent of the 969 Movement, which I will talk about more in tomorrow’s post.

  • nathan

    Ah, just saw your second post Murray. I can totally understand that initial reaction. Glad you found those reports. It’s pretty depressing to read, and difficult to write about in a clear fashion.

  • Murray Reiss

    The whole phenomenon of Buddhist “squeamishness” around Buddhist-led violence can teach us all a lot. What’s being assumed or said here? That “being Buddhist” is some kind of inoculation against violence, especially genocidal violence? Which begs the further question: what does it mean to “be” Buddhist? To be born in a Buddhist Country? To make offerings? To follow the eight-fold path? But already I’m slipping into the same delusion, heading towards a distinction between “real” Buddhists (who would never ethnically cleanse their neighbours) and not-so-real Buddhists who might do anything but, then, they’re not “real” Buddhists so their actions are no reflection on our potential for genocidal violence. One root of such squeamishness may well be a defensive reaction against an otherwise intolerable disillusionment. Much like what many of my parents’ generation went through with communism.

  • nathan

    I do think that at least some of that squeamishness is tied to a view that “Buddhists” are somehow immune from such attrocity production. That we are always “the peaceful ones.” There seems to be either a corresponding distancing from folks like the leaders of the 969 Movement, or attempts to soften or even erase what they’re doing.

    I think we can learn a lot about identity and particularly attachments to identity here.

    When I am not lost in attachment or defense of various identities I claim, I can see that every last human on earth has the seeds of greed, hatred, and ignorance in them. And if they are watered enough, and conditions are such, they can – and do – flower in sometimes awful ways. We also each have the seeds of peace, love, and liberation within. Their watering coupled with the “right” conditions can – and does sometimes – bring amazing results. Coming from that place, whatever story about who I am, or who someone else is, becomes rather flimsy.

    Even so, it’s still hard to swallow such things as fellow practitioners murdering their neighbors and preaching hate towards those of another religion. Part of me wanted to turn away and stop trying to write about it all. Nor take in yet another catastrophe between humans. I get that sense of staving off disillusionment, and/or trying to preserve some place of refuge – even if that place is ultimately not real. Seems like we all do that sometimes. And perhaps sometimes that’s even the best thing to do.

  • Richard Modiano

    “When I am not lost in attachment or defense of various identities I claim, I can see that every last human on earth has the seeds of greed, hatred, and ignorance in them. And if they are watered enough, and conditions are such, they can – and do – flower in sometimes awful ways. We also each have the seeds of peace, love, and liberation within. Their watering coupled with the “right” conditions can – and does sometimes – bring amazing results. Coming from that place, whatever story about who I am, or who someone else is, becomes rather flimsy.”

    I’m reminded of this passage from Slavoj Zizek’s “First As Tragedy Than As Farce”:

    “Our most elementary experience of subjectivity is that of the ‘richness of my inner life’: this is what I ‘really am,’ in contrast to the symbolic determinations and responsibilities I assume in public life (as father, professor, etc). The first lesson of psychoanalysis here is that this ‘richness of inner life’ is fundamentally fake: it is a screen, a false distance, whose function is, as it were, to save my appearance, to render palpable (accessible to my imaginary narcissism) my true social-symbolic identity. One of the ways to practice the critique of ideology is therefore to invent strategies for unmasking this hypocrisy of the ‘inner life’ and its ‘sincere’ emotions. The experience we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is thus a lie — the truth lies rather outside, in what we do. … ‘Stories we tell ourselves about ourselves’ serve to obfuscate the true ethical dimension of our acts.”

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    I resonate with a lot of what Zizek says in this quote. In fact I’m right with him until this sentence. “The experience we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is thus a lie — the truth lies rather outside, in what we do.” Feels like the opposite extreme. Denying the value of those stories and emotions, however limited they may be. What do you make of that sentence, Richard? Am I missing something perhaps?

  • Richard Modiano

    It seems to me that others can only know us by what we do, and since speech is a deed, when we articulate our stories and emotions they become acts (or works of art.)

    How we experience our subjectivity differs according to circumstances. When one is practicing, emotions rise and fall, stories collapse into other stories and consciousness becomes permeable. At other times we behave as Zizek describes above.

    I would say that the relationship is dialectical.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    “How we experience our subjectivity differs according to circumstances. When one is practicing, emotions rise and fall, stories collapse into other stories and consciousness becomes permeable. At other times we behave as Zizek describes above.”

    Agreed. Thank you for elaborating.

  • Winston Blake

    Buddhism comes from India and conquered all of Asia without killing anyone. This is why the Marxists and Maoists murdered our monks and desecrated our temples when they invaded Mongolia after WW2, yet we still teach our martial arts all over the world.

    The Dalai Lama pretends to speak for all Buddhists like the Pope pretends to speak for all Christians, neither one of them has a heart like the Great Temujin who came down off the Mongolian steppes.

    I am a Silat… I am from the order of the dragon kings, the cobra that adorns the Lord Shiva and covers the Buddha praying in the rain. Shaolin shall be avenged… you arrogant ignorant people cannot define the Buddhist because it is all about self empowerment and self realization.

    The Chinese emperor of this reigning Maoist dynasty has 200 military aged men he can turn into soldiers. The Chinese people want nothing more than to educate, feed and raise their children in peace and prosperity. Most of them rightfully hate their government and they do know our ways.

    A rising Buddhist army scares the living shit out of the greedy tyrants of the world because we rise from within, our weapons are sharper because they are honed with truth, not the corrupt lies of the rabid desert cult dogs….

    Buddha wasn’t a Christian, but Jesus would have been a good Buddhist and he was a Jew, who was murdered for driving the Jewish bankers out of the temple… Moses said that our rights do not come from an earthly monarch, yet Jews deposed their Yahweh and chose to be ruled by the appetites of men, now their Yahweh’s wrath rains down upon them like the rockets of Hamas.

    Marxism is a religion from a dead Jew just like Christianity is, another rabid desert cult… Cultural Marxism is the weapon of the decadent enemy…

    YOU ARE LIARS FROM THE RABID DESERT CULT…

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    Winston, if you have any specific issues with this post or the series on Burma, I’ll try and address those. Otherwise, I have nothing to offer in response to the above.

  • longchamp

    ダンヒルルクルト

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