The ori­gins of Myan­mar’s old­est ha­tred

Es­ca­lat­ing per­se­cu­tion and geno­cide of Mus­lim mi­nor­ity is rooted in the coun­try’s Bud­dhist in­sti­tu­tions, writes Michael Jer­ryson

Bangkok Post - - ROUNDUP - Michael Jer­ryson is an as­so­ci­ate professor of re­li­gious stud­ies at Youngstown State Univer­sity. Since 2004, he has lived and worked in Bud­dhist-Mus­lim con­flict zones through­out South­east Asia. His up­com­ing book is If You Meet the Bud­dha On the Road: Buddh

In a re­cent in­ter­view with a Guardian jour­nal­ist, the Myan­mar monk U Rarzar ex­pressed his coun­try’s ra­tio­nale for fear­ing and re­press­ing its Mus­lim mi­nor­ity. “[The] Ma Ba Tha is pro­tect­ing peo­ple from ter­ror­ists like Isis,” U Rarzar told the Bri­tish news­pa­per. “Mus­lims al­ways start the prob­lems, such as rape and vi­o­lence.” While U Rarzar’s com­ments might seem shock­ing, they re­peat a script that Myan­mar Bud­dhists have said for al­most one hun­dred years.

The fear, sus­pi­cion and ill will, if not ac­tive ha­tred, that Myan­mar Bud­dhists bear to­ward Mus­lims is per­va­sive. It is a kind of ide­o­log­i­cal in­doc­tri­na­tion that per­me­ates the so­ci­ety in ways both sub­tle and overt. Bud­dhists across Myan­mar — whether they are Bud­dhist monks, nuns, or laity — have ex­pressed fear that their Burmese Bud­dhist iden­tity is un­der threat of ex­ter­mi­na­tion. In Myan­mar, it is pop­u­larly un­der­stood that to be Myan­mar (the na­tion’s largest eth­nic group) is to be Bud­dhist. As such, a threat to Myan­mar Bud­dhism is seen as an ex­is­ten­tial threat to the na­tion.

The es­ca­lat­ing per­se­cu­tion and geno­cide of Myan­mar’s Mus­lim mi­nor­ity, the Ro­hingya, has deep roots in the coun­try’s Bud­dhist in­sti­tu­tions. The Ma Ba Tha that U Rarzar refers to trans­lates to As­so­ci­a­tion for the Pro­tec­tion of Race and Re­li­gion. It is well-known for its com­mu­nity outreach pro­grams, le­gal clin­ics, do­na­tion drives, and its ad­vo­cacy for Bud­dhism. Its mem­ber­ship con­sists of both monas­tic and lay Bud­dhist mem­bers.

The Ma Ba Tha is also known for its mem­bers’ per­se­cu­tions of the Ro­hingya Mus­lims in far west­ern Myan­mar’s Rakhine State. The at­tacks against the Ro­hingya in re­cent weeks have aroused in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion of Myan­mar’s mil­i­tary govern­ment and of Aung San Suu Kyi, the for­merly revered No­bel Peace Prize-win­ning politi­cian who is the de facto civil­ian leader.

The Ma Ba Tha has been among the most vo­cal pro­mot­ers of the no­tion of an im­mi­nent Mus­lim takeover in the coun­try. In or­der to ad­dress these con­cerns, in 2015 the Ma Ba Tha sup­ported the pass­ing of four laws, col­lec­tively known as the “Race and Re­li­gion Pro­tec­tion Laws”. These laws were specif­i­cally de­signed to con­trol the Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion’s growth through reg­u­lat­ing birth rates, mar­riages, and con­ver­sions. Yet even with these laws in place, there is a ris­ing fear and anx­i­ety among Myan­mar Bud­dhists, who be­lieve that the Mus­lim threat of ex­ter­mi­na­tion is nigh.

In fact, the coun­try’s sta­tis­tics show no such threat. Home to 55 mil­lion peo­ple, Myan­mar has a pop­u­la­tion that is roughly 88% Bud­dhist. Dur­ing the 1970s and 80s, the Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion stood at 3.9%. In the most re­cent cen­sus data from the Myan­mar Min­istry of Labour, in 2016, the Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion had risen to 4.3%. How­ever, the largest con­cen­tra­tion of Mus­lims in Myan­mar is the Ro­hingya, who have lived in Rakhine State, on the border with what is now Bangladesh, since the 1800s. While their num­bers have in­creased over the years, their pro­por­tion of the na­tional pop­u­la­tion has re­mained rel­a­tively con­stant.

If these num­bers are ac­cu­rate, why do Myan­mar’s Bud­dhists ex­hibit such anx­i­ety and fear?

Part of the an­swer lies in his­tory. Dur­ing the Bri­tish coloni­sa­tion of Myan­mar (18241948), there was a steady flow of South Asian im­mi­grants into Myan­mar. The Bri­tish in­ter­preted the de­vel­op­ing South Asian Mus­lim com­mu­nity as ev­i­dence of mod­erni­sa­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, this colo­nial pref­er­en­tial stereo­typ­ing also di­vided South Asian Mus­lims from their Myan­mar Bud­dhist coun­ter­parts.

The Bri­tish oc­cu­pa­tion of Myan­mar, pro­mo­tion of Chris­tian­ity, and the laud­ing of non-Myan­mar Bud­dhists, sparked or­gan­ised Bud­dhist re­sponses, such as the Young Men’s Bud­dhist As­so­ci­a­tion (YMBA), which sought to re­vi­talise Myan­mar Bud­dhism. At the same time, South Asian Mus­lims were de­rided with the deroga­tory la­bel kalar, due to their re­li­gion and darker skin colour. Myan­mar Bud­dhists viewed South Asians as both pol­lut­ing the rep­u­ta­tion of the coun­try, and as con­tribut­ing to the erad­i­ca­tion of Myan­mar Bud­dhists.

In the 1930s, Myan­mar be­gan boy­cotting “In­dian goods”. Au­thor­i­ta­tive or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil of the Gov­er­nor of Burma char­ac­terised the con­tin­ual im­mi­gra­tion of South Asians as turn­ing Burma into a dump­ing ground. The racial­i­sa­tion of South Asian Mus­lims was not unique to Myan­mar. In other South­east Asian coun­tries such as Thai­land, South Asian Mus­lims and Malay Mus­lims have been la­belled with the deroga­tory term khaek, an­other ref­er­ence to skin colour.

From the 1930s on­ward, there were pe­ri­odic anti-Mus­lim ri­ots and pogroms. Ac­cord­ing to Nyi Nyi Kyaw, a post­doc­toral fel­low at the Cen­tre for Asian Le­gal Stud­ies, at the Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore, who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively on the his­tory of anti-Mus­lim feel­ings in Myan­mar, the Myan­mar Bud­dhist at­tacks fo­cused pri­mar­ily on the South Asian Mus­lims, such as Ben­gali Mus­lims. Many of these peo­ple em­i­grated from the In­dian state of Ben­gal and what is now Bangladesh. These at­tacks con­tin­ued through­out the Myan­mar mil­i­tary junta’s reign, from 1962 to 2011.

This back­ground be­comes cru­cial in un­der­stand­ing the power be­hind the re­cent Ro­hingya nar­ra­tives in the me­dia. When high-rank­ing Bud­dhist monks such as U Wi­rathu re­mind their Bud­dhist au­di­ences about the dan­gers of Is­lam, and ref­er­ence the kalar — liken­ing the Ro­hingya to wild dogs or African carp — they are mak­ing use of a well-re­hearsed racist nar­ra­tive. This racism fu­els fears of pol­lu­tion, and stokes the fires of ha­tred and de­sire to com­mit vi­o­lence. It also al­lows the Myan­mar Bud­dhists to see the Ro­hingya as the “other”: a car­i­ca­ture of the for­eign as sub­hu­man, with very lit­tle moral worth.

This cam­paign of de­hu­man­i­sa­tion has been dis­as­trous for the Ro­hingya. Af­ter wide­spread anti-Mus­lim vi­o­lence in 2012, the Myan­mar govern­ment placed many Ro­hingya in camps. De­spite se­vere crit­i­cism from in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions in­clud­ing Hu­man Rights Watch, In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group, and Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, the govern­ment forced more than 120,000 Ro­hingya to live in cramped spa­ces, with­out suf­fi­cient food, wa­ter, or med­i­cal at­ten­tion. In 2014, The New York Times colum­nist Ni­cholas Kristof iden­ti­fied these ar­eas as con­cen­tra­tion camps and noted that physi­cians, in­clud­ing Doc­tors with­out Bor­ders, were re­moved from the camps and not per­mit­ted to re-en­ter.

Bud­dhist author­i­ties have fos­tered an­other nar­ra­tive in Myan­mar his­tory: in­va­sion and pol­lu­tion of the Myan­mar Bud­dhist fe­male body. With Myan­mar’s Race and Re­li­gion Pro­tec­tion Laws, the Ma Ba Tha made women’s bod­ies the stag­ing ground of a bat­tle for Bud­dhism. The “Re­li­gious Con­ver­sion Law” “pro­tects” Myan­mar Bud­dhist women from mar­ry­ing Mus­lims and con­vert­ing to Is­lam. U Wi­rathu has de­liv­ered ser­mons claim­ing the Mus­lim strat­egy is to con­vert Bud­dhist women, im­preg­nate them, and raise Mus­lims as en­e­mies of the coun­try. This tac­tic has not been over­looked by Hindu na­tion­al­ists in India, who re­cently al­leged Mus­lim plots to “se­duce” their women.

Women’s bod­ies are not only pro­tected, they are re­venged in this nar­ra­tive, with vi­o­lent re­tal­i­a­tion for the “pol­lu­tion” of Myan­mar Bud­dhist women’s bod­ies. The most re­cent chap­ter of anti-Mus­lim vi­o­lence be­gan in June 2012, over al­le­ga­tions that Ro­hingya had raped a Rakhine Bud­dhist woman. Even though there was no le­gal ver­i­fi­ca­tion of the at­tack, the Rakhine Bud­dhists burned the vil­lages of the Ro­hingya. More than 100,000 Ro­hingya be­came refugees by the end of 2012 — and were soon placed in Myan­mar’s con­cen­tra­tion camps.

In his book Colours of Vi­o­lence, In­dian psy­cho­an­a­lyst Sud­hir Kakar ex­am­ines the roots of Hindu-Mus­lim vi­o­lence in India. He ar­gues that dur­ing a con­flict, an at­tack on a fe­male body es­ca­lates a con­flict and dis­solves any pos­si­bil­ity of civil dis­course. Kakar writes: “Rape makes such in­ter­ac­tions im­pos­si­ble and turns Hindu-Mus­lim an­i­mos­ity into im­pla­ca­ble ha­tred.”

The vi­o­lence also fo­cuses on Ro­hingya fe­male bod­ies. Myan­mar Bud­dhist soldiers have raped Ro­hingya women as a means to ex­ert their dom­i­nance. While Bud­dhist monks like U Wi­rathu al­lege that the Ro­hingya are rap­ing Myan­mar Bud­dhist women, there have been steady re­ports com­ing from UN-sanc­tioned shel­ters of Ro­hingya women be­ing raped by Myan­mar soldiers. Annette Ekin, re­port­ing from a Bangladeshi shel­ter for the Ro­hingya, de­tails 20 year-old Aye­sha Be­gun’s re­count­ing of soldiers killing the men, tear­ing a baby away from a mother, and gang-rap­ing Aye­sha and the other women. The New York Times re­porter Jef­frey Get­tle­man nar­rates an equally bru­tal ex­am­ple with a young Ro­hingya woman called Ra­juma.

It would be easy to dis­count the atroc­i­ties tak­ing place in Myan­mar as an aber­ra­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, the coun­try’s his­tory of­fers a very dif­fer­ent as­sess­ment. Sadly, this is not a new is­sue, it is but a new chap­ter. Bud­dhist-in­spired vi­o­lence, racism, and sex­ist rhetoric and ac­tions do not re­flect a new de­vel­op­ment in Bud­dhism, or a unique strain within Myan­mar Bud­dhism.

Whether it is Ja­panese Zen Bud­dhist masters, Ti­betan lamas, or Sri Lanka monks, his­tory pro­vides ex­am­ples of Bud­dhist re­li­gious author­i­ties en­gag­ing in vi­o­lence, and sup­port­ing wars and con­flicts. In ad­di­tion they have a tra­di­tion of meth­ods in which Bud­dhists sup­port gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion and mil­i­tary forms of gov­er­nance.

I can­not em­pha­sise enough that these dark el­e­ments do not re­flect gen­eral Bud­dhist sen­ti­ments on a global level. More than 1 bil­lion peo­ple prac­tice some form of Bud­dhism. The vast ma­jor­ity sup­port peace and con­tem­pla­tive be­hav­iour. But that gen­er­al­ity does not mean Bud­dhists are im­mune to racist ten­den­cies, acts of rape, and other forms of vi­o­lence. In­stead, atroc­i­ties such as those in Myan­mar serve as a grim re­minder that hu­mankind is vul­ner­a­ble to vices, re­gard­less of re­li­gion or na­tion­al­ity.

The fear, sus­pi­cion and ill will, if not ac­tive ha­tred, that Myan­mar Bud­dhists bear to­ward Mus­lims is per­va­sive.


A Ro­hingya Mus­lim refugee child who en­tered Bangladesh by boat re­acts at the Sapla­pur beach in the Tek­naf district of Bangladesh on Novem­ber 9, 2017. More than 600,000 Ro­hingya have fled to Bangladesh since late Au­gust car­ry­ing ac­counts of mur­der, rape...

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