What’s the connection between Buddhism and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar?

How have Buddhists become implicated in one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world? Randy Rosenthal looks through history to understand how a religion of peace has become a justification for violence.

By Randy Rosenthal

Muslim protesters burn an effigy of radical Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu in Hyderabad, India, September 10, 2017. AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

– Aung San Suu Kyi

Understanding the Crisis in Myanmar

The scriptures of Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam condone, justify, and even sometimes encourage the use of violence. In Buddhist texts, it’s just the opposite. Chapter ten of the Dhammapada, an anthology of verses attributed to the Buddha, reads: “All tremble before violence. All fear death. Having done the same yourself, you should neither harm nor kill.” Another verse reads: “In this world hostilities are never appeased by hostility. But by the absence of hostility are they appeased. This is an interminable truth.” A line from the Metta Sutta reads: “Toward the whole world one should develop loving-kindness, a state of mind without boundaries—above, below, and across—unconfined, without enmity, without adversaries.” This principle of non-violence, consistent throughout the Pali Canon — the collection of early Buddhist teachings — is partly why many Buddhists are deeply troubled by the current situation in Myanmar — a majority-Buddhist country — where, particularly in Rakhine State, massive human rights violations are systematically being committed against the Muslim Rohingya people.

Hugging the Bay of Bengal on Myanmar’s western coast, and separated from central Myanmar by the Arakan Mountains, Rakhine State is home to over a million Muslims, most belonging to the Rohingya ethnic group, and over two million Buddhists of the Rakhine ethnic group, who are ethnically distinct from the country’s Bamar majority. The state’s capital is Sittwe, where communal violence erupted in 2012, and relations between Rakhine and Muslims were severed. Things have gotten exponentially worse since then; recent articles published in The New York Times and Al Jazeera exposed mass graves of Rohingya massacred by Burmese troops in September 2017, with acid apparently used to disfigure the bodies beyond recognition. In December 2017, Doctors Without Borders estimated that over 10,000 Rohingya had been killed in the most recent upsurge of violence, and that about 700,000 are living in exile in neighboring Bangladesh and India, causing the UN Human Rights chief to state the situation was “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Map of electoral constituencies and ethnic groups in Myanmar
The New York Times. March 30, 2012.

There is not enough evidence to declare genocide is occurring, but there is evidence of systematic rape, forced labor, restrictions of movement, restrictions on marriage and reproduction, and prevention from access to medicine and food rations. International observers say the situation will soon come to genocide if the international community does not immediately intervene. As the Holocaust demonstrated, ethnic cleansing can swiftly become genocide. Prior to 1941, the Nazi effort to expel all Jews from the Reich qualified as ethnic cleansing. The subsequent concentrating and then exterminating of Jews that began in earnest after the US entered the war was clearly genocide. As Penny Green, Director of the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) at London’s Queen Mary University, states, “Genocide can begin many years before actual extermination.” In April 2018, Green and the ISCI released a report arguing that the Myanmar government is “guilty of genocidal intent toward the Rohingya.”

Whether ethnic cleansing or genocide, it is clear that human rights violations against the Rohingya are occurring in Myanmar, which is enough to invoke the Responsibility to Protect principle, in accordance with Chapters VI, VII, and VIII of the United Nations Charter, authorizing the international community to intervene in Myanmar’s national sovereignty. For those of us observing from afar, the crisis forces us to ask questions about the role of Buddhism in world politics.

In The New York Times article “Why Are We Surprised When Buddhists Are Violent?,” Dan Arnold and Alicia Turner write, “How, many wonder, could a Buddhist society—especially Buddhist monks!—have anything to do with something so monstrously violent as the ethnic cleansing now being perpetrated on Myanmar’s long-beleaguered Rohingya minority? Aren’t Buddhists supposed to be compassionate and pacifist?”

To understand the issue more fully, we must first start with the narrative of Buddhist nationalism — the driving ideological force behind the Islamophobia fueling the violence against the Rohingya. From the perspective of a Buddhist nationalist, the story goes like this: Over the course of decades, Muslim Rohingya slipped over the border from Bangladesh at the point where it meets Rakhine State, and settled on Rakhine land. They grew in number and diluted the Buddhist population, forming the vanguard of a crusade to turn Myanmar into a Muslim country. Therefore, unlike other Muslims in Myanmar, such as the Kaman people, the Rohingya have never been Burmese citizens and do not deserve citizenship status.

This narrative is known as “the Muslim problem.” To cement the view that the Rohingya are not Burmese citizens, the Rohingya are referred to as “Chittagong Bengalis.”

From the nation’s start, Burma was a Buddhist and Bamar-ethnic majority.

There’s no escaping the fact that men wearing the robes of Buddhist monks are promoting this narrative. The most infamous of these is Ashin Wirathu, the 49-year-old Burmese monk who was on the cover of TIME magazine in 2013 and was the subject of the 2017 documentary film The Venerable W. by French filmmaker Barbet Schroder. As the film shows, Wirathu has led hundreds of thousands of followers in a hate-fueled, violent campaign of ethnic cleansing by claiming that the Rohingya are “a Saudi-backed Bangladeshi insurgency whose purpose is to infiltrate the country, destroy Myanmar’s traditional Buddhism and establish a caliphate.” Wirathu is a leader of the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, commonly known by its Burmese acronym, Ma Ba Tha. This group was founded in June 2013, and quickly found the support of millions. Ma Ba Tha and other Buddhist nationalist groups—not only Myanmar but also in Sri Lanka—describe their purpose as the protection and promotion of Buddhism through preaching about the importance of Buddhist values, history, education, sacred sites, and ceremonies. Yet accompanying this benign rhetoric is their insistence on neutralizing threats to Buddhism, which they claim come from Muslims.

In the 2016 book Myanmar’s Enemy Within, author Francis Wade talks with a lay member of this group, who shares the narrative fueling the group’s thinking. “If the Buddhist cultures vanish,” the member said, “Yangon will become like Saudi and Mecca … It can be the fall of Yangon. It can be the fall of Buddhism. And our race will be eliminated.” Though Buddhism is not a race, Ma Ba Tha often conflates race and religion, demonstrating that the group’s deeper concern is one of ethnicity.

Those who believe this narrative see verification of it in the history of other formerly Buddhist nations — like Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan — having been “overrun” by Muslims. Myanmar remains 90% Buddhist, with no evidence of that changing. So where did the idea that Buddhism will vanish originate?

The Rise of Burmese Nationalism

Buddhism has been used to consolidate the national identity in Burma for centuries. In the twelfth century, King Anawratha used Buddhist scriptures to unite the disparate people of the Ayeyarwady Valley and form the Bagan Empire. From the nation’s start, Burma was a Buddhist and Bamar-ethnic majority. From then on, kings would support the order of monks—the sangha—and in return the monks endowed the monarchy with legitimacy. The monks encouraged loyalty to the nation, but they also served as the conscience of the government, making sure that it ruled in accordance with Buddhist ethical principles. When it did not, the monks revolted.

An example of this was seen in the Saffron Revolution of September 2007. When the government allowed gas subsidies to expire, the price of goods rose 500%, and citizens protested. When the protesters were violently suppressed, the monks joined the protest by overturning their begging bowls on their alms round, disallowing government officials from earning merit by giving alms. The protest was a seriously embarrassing gesture, and the military government violently cracked down on the protests, beating and arresting thousands of monks.

The narrative that the Burmese people need to protect Buddhism from enemy foreign invaders has persisted for over a century, though the perceived enemy has changed from British to Muslim.

The 800-year connection between the monarchy and the sangha was severed in 1885, when the British invaded Upper Burma and incorporated it into its Indian colony. Dissolving the border between the countries, Indian Hindus and Muslims moved en masse — voluntarily or forcefully — into Burma, permanently altering the demographics of Rangoon in particular, where many found success in trade. With the loss of a Buddhist king and the loss of favor of the Buddhist education system, due to the British promotion of Christianity, 1885 saw the emergence of the first Buddhist nationalist movements.

The modern movement of Vipassana meditation arose out of this anti-colonial movement, with monk Ledi Sayadaw spreading the idea that it was the duty of every Buddhist to protect and preserve Buddhism by meditating and studying Buddhist scripture, both of which were previously only practiced by a small portion of monastics. Ledi Sayadaw’s movement was pacifist, but monks also led armed rebels to attack British troops in upper Myanmar during the British invasion. Nationalistic independence movements rose over the following decades, and in the 1920s and 30s a popular anti-colonial rallying cry was “Amyo, Batha, Thathana!” — which roughly translates to “Race, language, and religion!” The Ma Ba Tha organization derived its name from this slogan, of which it is an acronym.

This narrative — that the Burmese people need to protect Buddhism from enemy foreign invaders — has persisted for over a century, though the perceived enemy has changed from British to Muslim. The first instance of this shift can be seen in a rally of 10,000 Burmese at Rangoon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, in 1938, to protest the writing of Muslim intellectuals who were accused of insulting Buddhism. The protests resulted in attacks on Muslim communities across the city. In addition to anti-Muslim movements, the 1930s and 1940s also saw the rise of anti-Christian and anti-Hindu sentiments, the latter culminating in a series of anti-Indian riots. All of these incidences arose as part of anti-colonial movements and strengthened the idea that one must be Buddhist in order to be truly Burmese.

People standing around a mass grave as workers uncover it.
A mass grave is uncovered in Myanmar.

An important contributing factor to the current crisis in Rakhine occurred during WWII. Under Japanese occupation, Buddhists in Rakhine (then called Arakan) were recruited to fight as proxies for the Japanese. Local Muslims, in contrast, were armed and mobilized by the British as independent militias who performed guerilla-attacks on Japanese forces. This meant that Buddhists and Muslims were fighting against each other, which resulted in the groups becoming geographically separated and “ghettoized,” with Muslims fleeing north to avoid the anti-Muslim violence of the Japanese offensives, and Buddhists fleeing south to avoid the anti-Buddhist violence of the guerilla counter-offensives. After the war, waves of government violence against Rohingya occurred in 1954, 1962 (during the military takeover), 1977-78 (when the military forced the Rohingya to carry Foreign Registration Cards, and over 200,000 were driven into Bangladesh), 1992, 2001 (in response to the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist statues in Bamiyan), and 2003.

We can trace the history of the current crisis in Rakhine State to the military takeover of the country in 1962. Burma achieved independence in 1948, but after fourteen years of constitutional rule, the military junta took over in 1962. The junta systematically stoked fears of the demise of Buddhism and the break-up of the nation to cultivate loyalty among a resentful population. But they also held a monopoly on violence and prevented citizens and monks like Wirathu from encouraging social disturbance. (In 2003, Wirathu was arrested along with forty-four other monks for using hate-speech to promote attacks on Muslims and a mosque, and spent eight years in prison.) Ironically, it was only with the ostensible transition to democracy that began in 2011 that public religious tension between Buddhists and Muslims surfaced again. As Francis Wade writes, the idea was that “the stirrings of democratic change in Myanmar might level the playing field, allowing communities who felt long disenfranchised by the military to assert great claims to the nation.” It was feared that Muslims in particular would take advantage of democratic freedom, and if they did, Buddhists would suffer.

A crucial moment came in 1982 with the Citizenship Law, when the government issued an official list of 135 ethnic groups, or “national races” that held Myanmar citizenship. The list excluded the Rohingya, cementing their stateless status. A census in 2014 was then designed to exclude “alien” minorities from voting, and the 2015 elections resulted in Aung San Suu Kyi becoming State Councilor, with great gains for her National League for Democracy (NLD) — and also in the total absence of Muslims from Myanmar’s parliament for the first time since independence.

With the internet, Islamaphobic fanatics can connect the old Burmese narratives about Islam with the contemporary narrative of global jihad.

Suu Kyi has received widespread criticism for her silence on the Rohingya issue — especially in light of her earlier writing and speeches. In a 1989 open letter to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, for example, Suu Kyi wrote, “The chief aim of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and other organizations working for the establishment of a democratic government in Burma is to bring about social and political changes which will guarantee a peaceful, stable and progressive society where human rights, as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are protected by rule of law.” Then, in a speech she gave in Kachin State on April 27, 1989, Suu Kyi declared, “If we divide ourselves ethnically, we shall not achieve democracy for a long time.” Despite the apparent achievement of democracy in Myanmar, violent ethnic divisions continue to occur under Suu Kyi and the NLD’s leadership.

The latest upsurges of violence are also aided by globalization. With the internet, Islamaphobic fanatics can connect the old Burmese narratives about Islam with the contemporary narrative of global jihad. In The Venerable W. —shot before the 2016 election — Wirathu says, “In the USA, if the people want to maintain peace and security, they have to choose Donald Trump.” Through such comments, and his aggressive use of social media and DVD propaganda, Wirathu demonstrates his awareness of rising xenophobic nationalism around the world. He’s aware of 9/11; the attacks in Paris, Berlin, Nice, and Brussels; Brexit; Marine Le Penn in France; neo-Nazis in Germany; and the right-wing nationalist governments ruling in Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere in Europe. He knows he is tapping into a larger global vilification of Islam — a world vs. Muslim jihadist narrative. This framing is made possible by the internet, which only became widely available in Myanmar in 2011. Wirathu seems to be committed to connecting his regional crusade to a broader global movement. In 2014, he traveled to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, to sign a memorandum of understanding between Sri Lanka’s own Islamophobic monk group, Bodu Bala Sena (Army of Buddhist Power), and 969 (the precursor to Ma Ba Tha).

All of these conditions — the colonial history, the emergence of the internet, the global anti-Islamic narrative — provide a ripe ground for violence and persecution. The question that remains: are the crimes against humanity in Myanmar a tragic byproduct of random circumstances unabated by the peaceful doctrines of Buddhism, or is the violence part of some concerted effort by an as-of-yet unnamed actor, Buddhist or otherwise?

Behind the Current Crisis

The current crisis started in 2012. Here’s a brief timeline of events:

May 28, 2012

Twenty-six-year-old Rakhine woman Ma Thida Htwe was gang-raped and murdered by three men the state media identified as “Bengali Muslim” or “Islam Followers.” These men were promptly arrested.

June 3, 2012

A few days later, three hundred Rakhine men attacked a bus carrying Muslims in the town of Taungup, beating ten passengers to death. These Muslims were not Rohingya, but missionaries from northern areas not in Rakhine State.

June 9, 2012

Mobs of Rohingya retaliated by attacking Rakhine properties in Maungdaw, torching houses. Mobs of Rakhine in turn burned Sittwe’s Muslim quarter of Nasi to the ground, chasing tens of thousands of the Rohingya inhabitants out of Rakhine and into camps or exile in Bangladesh (some estimate up to 120,000). These mobs were reportedly bussed in from elsewhere in Rakhine State. They were reported to be drunk and/or high on drugs.

October 2012

A second wave of violence occurred, with apparently organized mob attacks on Muslim communities in nine townships across Rakhine State.

There were close-quarter machete attacks and torching of houses on both sides, but only Rohingya violence was “constructed as terrorism,” and ascribed to “jihad.” In this way, these small, local disturbances—of inter-community slaughter, not uncommon in South Asia—suddenly became part of a global crisis.


Wirathu and other monks from his 969 group organized a complete Muslim boycott, prohibiting Buddhists from having any interaction with Muslims whatsoever. Any Muslim “sympathizer” would also be persecuted, and one Buddhist who continued to do business with Muslims was beaten to death. The monks’ ban of Muslims set the precedent for an Islamophobia that went beyond the Rohingya to include officially recognized citizens of Myanmar.

March 2013

Extreme violence erupted in the central Myanmar town of Meikhtila—where both Muslim and Buddhist communities are largely Bamar—after a Buddhist couple claimed a Muslim jewelry store owner sold them a fake golden hairpin and a brawl started between them. While police watched, Muslim-owned shops were burned and Muslims were attacked; later, a group of Muslims knocked a Buddhist monk off of his bike, beating him as he lay on the ground, and then set his body on fire. This led to outright carnage, with outside groups again bused in to lead a full pogrom against Muslims in the town, resulting in a death toll of forty-three people, mostly killed by sticks and knives, and 830 buildings destroyed. (Again, the men making up the mobs were reported to be drunk and/or high on drugs.)

June 2013

After the report of a rape of a Buddhist woman by Kaman Muslim men in Thandwe, violence erupted again, not just against Kaman but also against Rohingya far away from the incident.

August 2017

Armed Rohingya rebels—of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)—launched a coordinated attack on thirty border police posts, killing a dozen security forces. This caused the Burmese army to retaliate against the Rohingya throughout Rakhine State with a “scorched earth campaign.”

March 2018

By March, more than 6,000 Rohingya had been killed and more than 655,000 had fled to Bangladesh. Over fifty-five villages had been completely bulldozed, removing traces of buildings, wells, and even vegetation. Here we can see the Myanmar army has learned from the Israeli Army, which many Myanmar officials admire; when asked how to respond to the Rohingya, Dr. Aye Maung, head of Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, said, “We need to be like Israel.”


Amnesty International says those Rohingya who remain in their villages and camps are being systematically starved, to force them to flee the country. It is a situation ripe for genocide.

In all cases of violence against Muslims, reports of police participation in the attacks raised suspicions of a link between the mobs and the government. In Azeem Ibrahim’s 2016 book The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, Ibrahim says that the violence in Myanmar is closely related to inter-ethnic tension in Sri Lanka and Thailand. The key difference in Myanmar, he writes, is that several prominent Buddhist groups are actively driving the anti-Muslim violence, such as Ma Ba Tha. Then Ibrahim makes the shocking assertion that “there is growing evidence that the Ma Ba Tha Buddhist extremist organization was set up by the military as an alternative power base.” He suggests the group is a “front organization” for the military. He continues, “In effect, the military is directly backing two different groups in contemporary Myanmar,” the USDP (their political party) and “its own organization of Buddhist extremists who both offer the means to channel electoral support to the USDP and to create violence that can later be used to justify a military intervention.”

Ibrahim explores the origin of the connection between the government and the Ma Ba Tha. The organization did not exist before the opening up of the country in 2011. Ibrahim writes that the monks who were arrested during the Saffron Revolution in 2007 were later offered money and state patronage to join the Ma Ba Tha and promote its core message of hatred of all Muslims. These revelatory claims are based on an article by Emanuel Stoakes, “Monks, Powerpoint Presentations and Ethnic Cleanings,” published in Foreign Policy on October 26, 2015.

Based on the evidence presented, it appears that the eruptions of violence against the Rohingya and other Muslim groups across Myanmar were organized and planned.

In his article, Stoakes interviews an anonymous monk who claims that after his release from prison, he had a meeting with three government officials and was offered money to join Ma Ba Tha and preach anti-Muslim rhetoric. He is one of four monk leaders of the Saffron Revolution who claim the government made similar offers to them. Stoakes also produced an investigative documentary with Al Jazeera, “Genocide Agenda,” which aired in October 2015. In the film, one anonymous monk leader explains the situation bluntly: “Gradually, monks from the Saffron Revolution ended up in Ma Ba Tha.” He further clarifies exactly what anyone trying to understand the situation needs to know: “Ma Ba Tha is controlled by the military. When it wants to start a problem at any time, it’s like turning on a tap. They will turn it on or turn it off when they want.”

The Al Jazeera documentary presents other monk leaders of the Saffron Revolution who claim Wirathu works for the government. These monks specify that Wirathu called them at their monasteries after they were released from prison in 2011, and invited them to come see him. When they went, they say he attempted to recruit them to join his anti-Muslim crusade with the offer of an office, complete with an Internet-connected laptop, a telephone, and a payment of $1,000 (in a country with a per capita income of $1,195). The film also shows a secretly taped mobile phone recording of a meeting between government officials and Ma Ba Tha clerics. Then, an anonymous acquaintance of Wirathu claims that Yangon’s Special Branch agency (undercover police) works closely with Wirathu, saying he has seen its members at Wirathu’s monastery in Mandalay. Further evidence is seen in a Powerpoint presentation used by members of the military at a training session in 2012 in the capital city of Naypyidaw, titled “Fear of Losing One’s Race,” a presentation in which the very same anti-Muslim language used by Ma Ba Tha is found, including the conspiracy of a Muslim plot to make Buddhism and Buddhists extinct. Other documents circulated among government officials and obtained by Al Jazeera warn of Muslim plots to rape Buddhist women, start riots, and carry out terrorist acts, including intentions to “cut off the heads of departmental staff members.”

The main point of the documentary is that, despite the apparent movement toward democracy, ethnic violence is engineered by the government in an attempt to keep its grip on power. Based on the evidence presented, it appears that the eruptions of violence against the Rohingya and other Muslim groups across Myanmar were organized and planned, not spontaneous, communal, or unintended consequences of democratization. While the government has dismissed any allegations of its links to the violence as “nonsense,” Stoakes writes, “Evidence obtained by Al Jazeera shows conclusively that the recent surge of anti-Muslim hatred has been anything but random. In fact, it’s the product of a concerted government campaign clearly aimed at promoting instability and undermining the opposition by stirring up the forces of militant nationalism.”

Stoakes responsibly notes that none of this evidence is clear proof of the connection between the government and Ma Ba Tha, but it is nevertheless illuminating. If the government has been corrupting men wearing the robes of a monk, then Buddhism is not being used as a rallying cry of hatred and exclusion, but merely as a veil for it.

In this crisis, the term “Buddhist” is used to designate cultural identity, not a religious belief or practice. Someone who identifies as a Buddhist doesn’t necessarily follow the teachings of the Buddha. Even back in the Buddha’s time, there were “bogus monks” who tried to join the sangha. These were not true monks but merely “men in yellow robes,” and were ejected from sangha gatherings. We should understand the situation in Myanmar as a cultural conflict rather than a religious conflict. As Azeem Ibrahim wrote, it is the exclusive nature of the Theravada tradition that often leads to “violent inter-ethnic tension in Sri Lanka and Thailand, as well as Myanmar,” not Buddhism itself.

The military government of Myanmar is cynically using Buddhism to manipulate people to behave with violence and hatred, rather than compassion and generosity. In my experience, conversations about Myanmar tends to get mired in debate about whether Buddhism is a non-violent religion. Perhaps we should leave Buddhism out of the conversation. In order to focus on addressing the actual situation more effectively and responsibly, it’s important to understand the complex political and ethnic issues more deeply. With a deeper understanding, we might be able to engage with the situation more effectively.

Randy Rosenthal

Randy Rosenthal

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, where he focused on Buddhist Studies, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The American Scholar, and many other publications.