When Buddhists Oppress
Surprise: Buddhists are not morally pure and blameless. We participate in systems of injustice, both directly and indirectly. But while we work to undermine these systems, can Right Speech and Right Action afford to be gentle when acute violence is being enacted? (And what considerations should be made when criticizing others from a position of privilege within the United States?)
Burma (Myanmar) has made the news recently with an increase in violent Buddhist attacks against Muslims. According to CNN, “Burmese security forces backed by Buddhist monks have ‘committed crimes against humanity’ in a campaign of ethnic cleansing that has displaced more than 125,000 Rohingya Muslims in the southwest of the country, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch.” These crimes include the murder of hundreds of Rohingya people, including children, and destruction of thousands of Muslim residences. The Burmese government and military forces have been accused, at minimum, of doing nothing to prevent violence, and at worst, of coordinating it.
Aung San Suu Kyi—who for Westerners has long been a symbol of principled resistance and socially engaged Buddhism in Burma—has remained silent about the riots. This is probably a political move to smooth her way into Burmese politics as an elected official, which is more than a little disappointing.
For me, this raises a question of whether Buddhist ethics and beliefs can ever be merged with nationalism and remain universal in scope. There have been several examples in recent years of Buddhist nations engaged in bloody civil conflicts against minorities—Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. During World War II, the Japanese Empire harnessed Buddhism to its imperial dreams, sending thousands of willing monks into battle to colonize Asia. So while Buddhist teachings are fundamentally against killing and other forms of harming, when it becomes part of the dominant ideology of a state, the provincialism of nationalism trumps the universalist aims of Buddhism. Cultivating peace becomes less about non-violence than about protecting the integrity of a nation, a land, a way of life, a people. Violence can be justified in the name of defense.
Some argue that this is what happened when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. What was previously a marginal, persecuted set of beliefs became the law of an imperium, and all the material and military resources of an empire became available for its strengthening and defense. Consequently, other religions became marginal and persecuted. If in some weird twist of fate Buddhism became the dominant religion of the United States, it would be a horror to behold.
On the other hand, these religious and ethno-religious trappings are often just a part of the conflict. They are easy focal points for coalescing frustrations about economic problems, or masking the way elites are profiting or attempting to profit. In Burma, by not recognizing the Rohingya as Burmese and treating them as foreigners, I have to ask, “who is benefiting most from these views and policies, directly or indirectly?” Though I don’t know the answer, if we keep asking this question every time the situation is framed as a religious conflict, eventually we might discover that it isn’t at all religious in nature.
Nationalism, regardless of whether it’s explicitly or implicitly Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, or any other flavor, is in all likelihood completely inimical to the universal teachings of these religions once it becomes part of the modern state. Merging religion with state power makes for a very parochial understanding of “us,” one that equates religion exclusively with a specific people and land. Sadly, at some point the state will have to defend this view, whether through military action, or as is often the case with politicians trying to stay afloat, through inaction. Who benefits the most?