Is the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar rooted in religion, or is it fundamentally a manifestation of secular right-wing nationalism? Khin Mai Aung looks at the role of Buddhism in Myanmar’s ongoing genocide.
Earlier this month, President Trump met with victims of religious persecution, including survivors of genocide in Myanmar — a genocide largely fueled by nationalist Buddhists and targetted at Rohingya Muslims. In the meeting, Trump didn’t appear to know much about the Rohingya. When a Rohingya man told Trump that he had fled to Bangladesh, Trump responded, “And where is that, exactly?”
But the genocide in Myanmar is becoming harder to ignore, and Buddhists around the world are increasingly paying attention to the genocide and trying to understand the real role of religion in the rise of Buddhist nationalism. Hateful ideas spread by militant nationalists like Myanmar’s Ma Ba Tha – an infamous collective of extremist Buddhist monks who have incited violence against Myanmar’s Muslim minority – are obviously incongruent with the Buddha’s teachings on peace and compassion. But is Buddhism nonetheless implicated in these acts of hate? Or, despite the term “Buddhist nationalism,” is the violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka secular at its core, another manifestation of right-wing ethnic nationalism?
I pondered these questions at a panel in May, called The Rohingya Genocide, at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary. The panel was sponsored by the Buddhist Action Coalition, the Buddhist Council of New York, and the Union Thich Nhat Hanh Program for Engaged Buddhism. Similar inquiries also emerged at the Voices of Courage symposium a month earlier in Boulder, Colorado, sponsored by Shambala Boulder and Naropa University. That meeting explored strategies to fight Buddhist extremism.
But, even after much discussion, neither event resolved the question of whether and to what extent Buddhism itself is intertwined in toxic nationalism in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and, to a lesser extent, Thailand. I followed up with participants from both events, as well as other Buddhists to continue the discussion.
Chad Dechant is a Zen Buddhist and co-organized the New York City event. He thinks that secular factors play a role, but “we can’t pretend there’s not a religious element. Buddhism is clearly being used to motivate and propel violence.”
Richard Reoch, the former president of Shambhala, works with the International Working Group on Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, the militant Buddhist organization Bodu Bala Sena incites hatred against non-Buddhists. Reoch says that his colleagues in Sri Lanka who are working for peace and reconciliation face severe intimidation from Buddhist nationalists. “I have colleagues who are getting death threats right now,” says Reoch. “Many fear that they or their families will be attacked by mobs” — mobs that receive moral absolution from extremist monks in the name of the dharma.
Hozan Alan Senauke is the vice-abbot of the Zen Center of Berkeley. He says he has seen “glimpses of nationalism” in exchanges with Buddhist monks through his activism and humanitarian work in Myanmar. He recalls meeting one monk who said the Rohingya were “spreading within Myanmar” and complained about “Bengali expansionism.” Another monk “flew off the handle” when Senauke used the word “Rohingya.” Senauke says the monk “excoriated [the Rohingya] in really graphic terms.”
With Buddhist monks absolving mobs and making vitriolic attacks, it seems important to examine the religious component of nationalist extremism in Buddhist countries.
Ashin Issariya, one of the leaders of Myanmar’s Saffron Revolution — a series of monk-led political protests in 2007 met by a harsh military crackdown — has been personally intimidated for condemning extremism. But, he believes the conflict in Myanmar is fundamentally “about [ethnic] nationalism, not religion.” Ashin Issariya points out that the Myanmar military encourages Wirathu — the famed extremist leader of Ma Ba Tha — and his followers to preach that Buddhism is threatened by Islam in order to solidify support from the country’s Buddhist Bamar majority. “It’s about nationalism, not religion,” says Ashin Issariya. “We need to make the distinction.”
Chu May Paing, a Theravada Buddhist, says that the Rohingya genocide is a symptom of a broader underlying issue. Ashley Aye Aye Dun, founder of Saddha: Buddhists for Peace, a Burmese American Theravada-influenced interfaith network, adds that “ethnic minorities such as the Rakhine, Shan, Karen, Mon, Kachin, and others have also endured violent, state-sanctioned campaigns of persecution since independence.” Paing and Dun point out that nationalist extremism in Myanmar is based on an in/out group dynamic with both ethnic and religious elements. In addition to the Rohingya, there are many other ethnic–religious minorities in Myanmar, which are fundamentally excluded from Myanmar’s core identity, which revolves around the Bamar ethnicity and Buddhist culture. These minorities face challenges accessing education, employment, and public services and gaining citizenship.
“I am Armenian,” says Eric Manigian, a Zen Buddhist and co-organizer of the NYC event. “We suffered our own genocide of 1.5 million people under the Ottoman Empire.” Like Myanmar’s Rohingya minority which has endured successive waves of repression driven by Buddhist nationalism, Armenian Christians in the predominantly Muslim Ottoman Empire were deported, incarcerated, or murdered during WWI. Turkish nationalism, with both ethnic and religious components, fueled that conflict.
As in the Armenian genocide — and countless others — religion and ethnicity reinforce one another through nationalism to identify who belongs in the community, and who doesn’t. The only way to prevent future genocide – as well as other nationalist repression – in even more countries is by exploring how previous genocides and nationalist surges came about, and parsing out the roles played by religion and ethnicity.
Senauke observes that “it’s important for us to investigate our idealizations about Buddhism… We want to think that our religion or practice is morally good and sound, but by looking at history we find that it’s a lot more complex.”
We must examine Buddhism for all that it can be – a force for good, as well as for evil. Buddhism’s transformative and liberating power isn’t compromised by the religion’s vulnerability to mutation by malignant forces. We must call out extremist Buddhist nationalism as a dark corner of our religion to protect it from further perversion and prevent future atrocities in its name.
Manigian says he transcended his anger about the Armenian genocide by studying Buddhism. “The whole thing is very ironic, but beautifully circular at the same time,” he says. Buddhism helped him come to terms with his people’s genocide by Muslim Turkish nationalists, and now he’s fighting Buddhist nationalism against Muslim minorities in countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
We can only stop this cycle of persecution by facing religious nationalism head-on and calling it out for what it is. It’s what we need to end this deadly game of musical chairs between oppressor and oppressed, and the endless cycle of religious and ethnic nationalism.