The Fire This Time: Religious Violence in Burma

Buddhadharma recently asked Hozan Alan Senauke, Soto Zen priest and longtime peace activist, to offer some insight on the current conflict between Buddhist and Muslim ethnic groups in Burma. Below is his response — an excellent explanation not only of the conflict itself but of how we, as Western Buddhists, might try to make a difference.

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; by non-hatred only is hatred appeased. This is an unending truth.
—Dhammapada, 5

On February 27, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was ordered to close all its long-established clinics in Myanmar/Burma. They were accused of giving preferential treatment to Muslim Rohingya people. This was in response to statements by MSF about what they saw as ongoing and systematic attacks on Rohingyas in vulnerable communities of Burma’s western Rakhine state. According to U.N. documents, the latest of these attacks — in Du Chee Yar Tan village this January — left forty-eight Rohingya dead, mostly women and children, at the hands of Buddhist-based rioters and state security forces. MSF, with numerous clinics in the area, publicly reported that they had treated at least twenty-two victims. The government of Myanmar has denied claims of these abuses, asserting that the U.N. and MSF’s facts and figures were “totally wrong.”

After negotiations, the government stepped back a little, allowing MSF to continue its HIV/AIDS work and other activities in Kachin and Shan states, as well as in the Yangon region. Rakhine state remains off limits to MSF, despite the pressing needs of thousands from all religions and ethnicities who depend on their clinics.

Before going much further, I should say that nothing I write can convey the complexity of issues or the passion and fear that fires both sides. From my distant vantage point in the U.S., I know that I can’t see the whole picture, which includes colonial history and geopolitics, along with regional and ethnic tensions within modern Myanmar.

Seven years ago, the junta’s harsh economic measures brought a daring movement into the streets of Burma’s towns and cities. That movement came to be called the “Saffron Revolution.” Many thousands of Burmese joined the tide of protest, led by monks and nuns who stood up to the armed troops of an entrenched military dictatorship. The vision of a river of robed monastics and stark images of courageous confrontations of activists and soldiers are still clear in my mind. It was inspiring to see Buddhist monks and nuns take the lead and bear great risk for the sake of their nation.

Inspiring as it was, the Saffron Revolution was crushed by the junta’s armed forces in the late days of September 2007. Monasteries were emptied, with police cordons set up at their gates. Thousands of monks, nuns, and supporters were thrown into prisons or disappeared. An unknown number were killed. According to some reports, crematoriums on the outskirts of Yangon were operating night and day. When I visited Yangon with a small witness delegation in December of that year, we saw for ourselves the silent streets, empty monasteries, and the look of fear on people’s faces.

The Buddhist-led Saffron Revolution opened the world’s eyes to the plight of Burma. Images of brutality, violence, and murder—smuggled out at great risk—raised the stakes between the junta and citizenry. The whole nation—citizens and junta alike—was shamed by these images. That shame deepened the following year when Cyclone Nargis tore across southern Burma, leaving more than 150,000 dead, and large areas of population and agricultural devastated. The junta’s sluggish response and resistance to outside humanitarian relief drove the death toll higher. Once again, Burma was shamed before itself and the world.

In the spring of 2011, after fifty years of direct oppression, a flawed but nonetheless significant election seemed to set the course for a period of liberalization. Many of us were heartened by this change and by the return of Nobel-laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to active political life. In time, almost all of the thousands of known political prisoners, many of them monks and nuns, were released, rededicating themselves to the building of a free society.

These changes, tentative as they seemed, were hopeful signs, acknowledged by the wide community of nations and by international non-governmental organizations ready to help with resources and training. On my visits to Burma I could feel a burden of fear lifting and the sense that a future was possible. Although there was still active fighting between government troops and rebel forces in Shan and Kachin states, it was possible to imagine an end to internal violence after so many years.

But in May 2012, the rape and murder of a woman in Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh, touched off violence between groups of ethnically Buddhist Rakhine people and local communities of Muslim Rohingyas. Hundreds were killed, dozens of villages were looted and burned and many Rohingyas fled to hastily-constructed camps. The population of these camps is now approaching 200,000, out of an estimated population of 750,000 Muslims in Rakhine State.

Over the last two years, voices and acts of intolerance in Burma have been regularly in the news, as have the government’s denials of discrimination or responsibility. Burma’s minister of religious affairs, Sann Sint, a lieutenant general in the former junta, justified a boycott of Muslim businesses led by monks: “We are now practicing market economics,” he said. “Nobody can stop that. It is up to the consumers.”

In May 2013, authorities in Rakhine state announced a policy imposing a two-child limit on Muslim Rohingya families in two western townships, reinforcing the perception of ethnic cleansing in Burma. This alarming policy is the only known legal restriction of its kind today against a specific religious group.

According to the June 14, 2013 edition of The Irrawaddy, “About 200 senior Buddhist monks convening in Rangoon on Thursday have begun drafting a religious law that would put restrictions on marriages between Buddhist women and Muslim men.”

In July the international edition of Time magazine added fuel to the fire with a cover photo of the fundamentalist Burmese monk Wirathu, calling him “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” President Thein Sein’s office released a statement about Wirathu and his fundamentalist 969 movement, saying 969 “is just a symbol of peace” and Wirathu is “a son of Lord Buddha.”

Anti-Islamic violence has spread to other areas of the country. March 2013 riots in Meikitla, in central Burma south of Mandalay, left forty-four people dead and thousands of homes consumed by flames. Later, two days of violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Lashio — the largest town in Burma’s Shan State, near the Chinese border — left a mosque, an orphanage, and many shops destroyed by Buddhist-identified mobs roaming the streets on motorcycles.

Undoubtedly there has been violence on both sides. But in each of these instances, the preponderance of organized reaction seems to be Buddhist-identified, often with leadership from monks, and with minimal response from the government and the Burmese army only after damage has been done. Local people describe the military as standing by and watching as the destruction unfolds.

This conflict has tangled roots going back decades to the British colonial occupation and years before. But the current tensions also speak to contention over scarce agricultural land and economic resources that manifests as communal hostility. Rakhine State, an independent kingdom for several thousand years, was only absorbed into a greater Burma at the end of the 18th century, then ceded to the British only forty years later. Under the military dictatorship, the Rakhine State was exploited by the generals for its rich natural resources and labor. In the north, it was pressed by an ever-expanding “Bengali” population of Muslim-majority Bangladesh. It is no surprise that Rakhine fear “Bengalis” and are suspicious of outsiders.

One wonders, too, whether we are seeing garden-variety religio- or ethno-centrism, a disease of group identity and privilege that is sadly endemic among humans? Is there also a perverse political motivation in which the former military junta is “allowing” the violence so they can intervene and reassert their position as the preservers of social order in Burma?

Rohingyas have lived in Burma in Rakhine state for generations, and very likely for several hundred years, although the facts are hotly contested. The former military regime’s 1982 law excluded them from among the nation’s 135 recognized ethnicities, denying the Rohingyas citizenship and basic rights on the basis that they were in fact “Bengali,” having infiltrated Burma from the eastern region of the Indian Empire. Yet present-day neighbor Bangladesh denies citizenship to Rohingyas living within its own borders. In the background, of course, is a fear rooted in the historical sweep of Islam across Buddhist and Hindu India and on, across large portions of Southeast Asia.

The Rakhine State region, with natural gas reserves and a long shoreline on the Indian Ocean, is also at play in geopolitical tensions between China and India, each with its eye on Burma’s wealth and strategic location. It is not surprising that the United Nations views the Rohingyas as “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.”

Myanmar/Burma is still in a delicate transition to democracy after fifty years of military dictatorship. The 2008 constitution reserves one quarter of the seats in both legislative bodies to delegates from the tatmadaw/military. It is hard to imagine Burma going back to its dark ages, yet within recent memory we can recall the dissolution of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia into oppositional ethnic and religious enclaves when Soviet-style dictatorship ended.

One hopes against hope for better in Burma. We look to the government of Burma, including President Thien Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to play an active and nonviolent role in resolving conflicts between Buddhists, Muslims, and all ethnic groups. Central to this resolution is a guarantee of citizenship as well as human and religious rights to all Burma’s diverse inhabitants. So far their response has been evasive. At a press conference with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in early March of this year, Jim Brooke, editor of The Cambodia Daily asked her to address the plight of Burma’s Rohingya People. Suu Kyi’s response was indirect to say the least. She said:

In any society, when there are tensions between different communities, you have to first of all ensure security. People who are insecure will not be ready to sit down to talk to one another to sort out their problems. So if you ask me what the solution is to the problem in the Rakhine, I would say simply ‘I don’t know what the solution is completely, but one essential part of it is the establishment of the rule of law.

It seems to me that when the house is burning down, it’s not the time to discuss the fire department’s management policy. At the same time, one can understand Daw Suu’s vulnerable political position as parliamentary elections approach in 2015. Fundamentalist Buddhists have already begun to form alliances with the former junta generals to block Aung San Suu Kyi’s eligibility to stand for the Myanmar’s presidency.

The views of many “progressive” Buddhists are defensive and locked down with regard to Muslims. This can also be seen as an artifact of a military dictatorship that dismantled an excellent education system in a successful effort to replace knowledge with fear, mistrust, and superstition. A friend recently returned from Myanmar, where she was evaluating a residential program in peacebuilding for Buddhist activists, reports that even voices of moderation, reflection, and dialogue are now being effectively silenced. 

A monk in Sittwe, capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine State, told my friend:

… Rakhine (people) do not like the talk of foreigners on human rights, and their suggestions to accept Muslims. The Rakhine have too much fear and lack trust…. They fear Muslims will take over their land, and feel betrayed by foreigners who come to help Muslims and not them.

I don’t assume that the concerns of Rakhine Buddhist have no factual basis. Violence by individual Muslims is also part of the picture. But it might be that the fears and acts of Buddhists—effectively, the demonization of Rohingyas and of Muslims throughout Burma—are creating the very conditions they fear most, with an increasing internationalization of an organized and potentially violent Islamic pushback.

Burma seems headed into a maelstrom of inter-communal conflict. And this may very well fit the purposes of still-powerful generals and politicians whose vision is to create a strong nationalist entity with a Burmese Buddhist identity. Ethnic confrontation in Burma challenges many of our cherished ideas of a “peaceful” Buddhism and religious fellowship. We know that the Buddha’s teaching and example are profoundly nonviolent, but for those of us inside and outside Burma who may have idealized a Buddhist-based nonviolent movement for democracy and human rights there, violence in Rakhine State and elsewhere is a discouraging reality.

And this is not confined to Burma. A decade of conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in southern Thailand has left more than 6000 dead and 10,000 injured. In Sri Lanka, after the murderous suppression of a Hindu Tamil minority in the north by Singhalese Buddhist nationalist military, tensions between Buddhists and Muslims have taken a center stage. In the modern era we see again and again that where a national state and religious identity merge, nothing wholesome will emerge.

I know there are countless open-minded citizens, monks, and nuns in Burma who desire peace and harmony among all religions and ethnicities. May they have the courage to speak out. And may they remember that what happens in the name of Buddhism affects how people around the world view this precious path that we strive to follow. Shakyamuni Buddha lived in a place and age of great diversity and change. He never taught fear. He never advocated violence. He did not hesitate to speak out for what was right and just. I would hope that Buddhists of today, whether they are in Burma or the West, would hold themselves to the same high standard. May all beings live in safety and happiness.

Hozan Alan Senauke
Clear View Project
March 2014

Postscript: What Can I Do?

Many Buddhists and concerned people in the West want to know what we can do to be of help in this painful situation. Over the last two years I have organized and taken part in letter-writing campaigns to Myanmar’s government, the United Nations, and the U.S. State Department by citizens and Buddhist teachers from Asia and the West. So far, to no avail. By long habit the government of Myanmar is relatively heedless of outside criticism, and they know that money from developed nations will continue to flow in their direction so long as Burma has resources to sell.

Nonetheless, we have to try. Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield just returned from Burma and he suggests the following:

…write or contact your congresspeople and the State Department, pressing the U.S. not to support major aid, business deals, and especially military collaboration with Burma unless the Burmese government stands up for human rights for all groups. Western Buddhist can write to Myanmar’s Ministry of Religious Affairs www.mora.gov.mm/ expressing your concerns.

I would also urge you to stay informed and be watchful. Online publications like irrawaddy.org as well as conventional sources like the New York Times, and the BBC do a good job following this issue.

I am encouraged by discussions that took place at last November’s conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists www.inebnetwork.org/ in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Throughout the conference, Burmese Buddhists and Muslims held a daily dialogue behind closed doors, where they could begin to map out both differences and possible solutions. Growing from these discussions, a commission of inquiry has been organized by a recently-formed International Forum on Buddhist-Muslim Relations. This fact-finding commission plans to meet and collaborate with local civil-society bodies inside Myanmar. It will have three primary objectives:

  1. to bring forth the facts of Buddhist-Muslim conflict in Myanmar;
  2. to ascertain the causes of this conflict;
  3. to develop resources and proposals for the establishment of inter-religious peace and harmony in Myanmar.

People of Burma and of the whole Southeast Asian region will need to solve these problems by their own agency. I believe they can do this and they will need us to bear witness and lend support. In time we will be able to offer help.

As the situation evolves, I will do my best to keep you informed in these pages and on the Clear View Project website and blog.

- A.S.


Hozan Alan Senauke is vice-abbot of Berkeley Zen Center in California, where he lives with his family. As a socially engaged Buddhist activist Alan has worked closely with Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the International Network of Engaged Buddhists since 1991. In 2007 he founded Clear View Project, developing Buddhist-based resources for relief and social change in Asia and the U.S.