The Rohingya, Buddhism, and anti-Muslim sentiment

I’ve been constantly checking my twitter feed lately. #RohingyaNOW Why? Because it’s almost the only place I can find news about what appears to be a straight-up genocidal attempt by some Burmese fascists. I’m not using that word metaphorically or rhetorically; I believe they qualify as fascists under most standard definitions of the word. These people are attempting to provoke a mass movement to expel or murder all non-Burmese and non-Buddhists from the country. Facing its own long-running Muslim minority problems in the South, Buddhist Thailand is doing its bit, too. Long the cooperative beneficiary of human trafficking from Burma into Thailand, security forces from both Thailand and Burma have attacked boats full of Muslim refugees fleeing the violence, sometimes drowning all those on board, other times pushing them away from Thailand’s coastlines, refusing them the obligatory offerings to refugees under International Law.

I do not have time at the moment for an extensive commentary on these issues, but want to add my voice to those who are pleading with the media, the United Nations, and others, to increase coverage, stand up for the victims of communal violence, and begin a process of restoration for victims of genocidal violence. A few points:

1. These are indeed “Burmese Buddhist Fascists.” They are opposed, apparently, first to the Rohingya, an ethnic minority and Muslim group largely in Western Burma.  The fascists consider them illegal immigrants, though they have been in the area for many generations. They are not opposed to the Rohingya solely for reasons of ethnic difference, either: they are explicitly opposed to Muslims in general. Moreover, much of the most vocal leadership, and according to pictures from the most recent riots and murders, much of the on-the-ground leadership, is by Buddhist monks. Here’s Buddhist monk Wirathu, founder of the newly-formed Buddhist Fascist group “969”, sermonizing against Muslims and encouraging a financial boycott of Muslim enterprises, while stoking fears of a Muslim takeover of Burma. It’s chilling:

Additionally, while the violence against Burma’s Rohingya and Muslims existed prior to the recent steps toward democratization indicated by the new participation of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in politics (so lambasted in the monk’s speech, above), it seems to have worsened significantly since then. I do not have enough knowledge of the situation first-hand to confirm this, and am basing my perception here on discussions I had with various people who study Burma (both Burmese and non-Burmese) recently. If correct, it would be interesting to read Burma’s current case against the recent work of sociologist Michael Mann, Democracy’s Dark Side: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. In that book, Mann (whose companion volume on Fascists is also compelling) argues that sudden democratization, mediated by a number of other necessary preconditions, can actually drive ethnic cleansing. I don’t necessarily endorse his views in either book, though I have found much of them compelling and very “good to think with.”

Regardless, Aung San Suu Kyi has been almost completely silent about the multi-year attack on Burmese Muslims. Some reports point out the great overlap between the primary sources of her political support (Buddhist monks) and the primary sources of these anti-Muslim fascists (Buddhist monks), such as this article, headlined, Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi’s “Saffron Monks” Stalk Streets With Machetes – Mass Slaughtering Refugees.

2. This is a political conflict about ethnicity and religion, not a religious conflict that has become political. This is a key distinction. When it is presented as ‘ethnic violence,’ or ‘communal violence,’ in the international media, or by UN officers, we imagine different lines than may actually exist.  Watch the following video, which covers the aftermath of the anti-Muslim pogrom that took place in Meiktila on March 22. You’ll see two Burmese Buddhist laypeople interviewed. The first is the woman at the beginning of the video, who casually uses the offensive word ‘Kalar’ to refer to Muslim victims of the violence, all the while condemning the violence; the second is the chilling and passionate, brave, speech given by the man at the end of the video, who identifies himself as a “Pure, Burmese Buddhist,” and then proceeds on the basis of that identity, to condemn the attacks in the strongest possible terms. Additionally, unlike in previous anti-Muslim riots/massacres, this time local Buddhists appear to have engaged in attempts to rescue some of their Muslim neighbors. In other words, this is not a universally held Buddhist value, but the fascists are indeed basing their values on an idea of Buddhism. This is political, not a ‘naturalized’ ethnic conflict.

3. This is geopolitical.  Many also blame the relative silence on the ongoing, long-running, plight of the Rohingya and other persecuted Muslim minority groups in Burma on the recent ‘opening’ of Burma, an opening which allows for entirely new geopolitical strategies to emerge. The People’s Republic of China’s constant quest for Southern coastal access, in addition to resources and regional hegemony has propelled into high gear, as new competitors from the West, previously dissuaded by concerns over democracy, now seek additional engagement. Neither set of powers want to disturb the line, for fear of losing access to the trough. The “International Community” has now condemned the riots, but the United Nations envoy visiting camps was reported as having told the victims to view this as ‘criminal actions,’ and not as ‘communal violence,’ presumably because to correctly describe these massacres would be to ‘provoke’ additional violence. Moral cowardice mixed with institutional impotence:

4. This is about religion. At least partially. It’s about political attempts (see point 2, above), by some religious people to redefine their social identity in ways that are primarily concerned with homogenous identities and purity. In this case, a core component is that people should be purely Buddhist. But it’s also potentially about the stereotype of Buddhism that has grown up in the Western countries that are part of the geopolitical situation (see point 3, above). Buddhism as it is known in Europe and the United States is the product of a fascination with Buddhism by a bunch of Victorian-era Orientalists, who imagined Buddhism as a sort of perfect secular religion, a moral and mental philosophy that could accord with the modern world. With such an exceptional image of Buddhism as a religion sui generis, it often surprises people holding such a vision to find that Buddhism has also been responsible for massacres, genocide, communal violence, and oppression. To the extent that confirmation bias is a thing (hint: it’s a real thing), the imagination that Buddhism is a secular, moral philosophy of pacifist non-violence can prevent people from seeing the situation in Burma for what it is.


2 thoughts on “The Rohingya, Buddhism, and anti-Muslim sentiment

  1. ”Encouraging a financial boycott of Muslim enterprises”… Reminds me of something put together by a little moustache guy in 30’s Europe………

    Really liked your analysis in point 2 & 4 about politics going ethnic / religious and not the opposite, and about our orientalist perception of Buddhism as an all-good-all-the-time religion (I would even go further that the absolute opposite in Orientalism to that is actually Islam as being an all-bad-all-wrong-all-the-time one).

    • Hi Emiko; I agree on your suggestion that Islam is often constructed as the ‘ultimate baddy.’ It would be interesting to some, I suppose, to actually develop a quantitative history of those Muslims who have killed non-Muslims in the name of Islam, compared to those Christians who have killed in the name of Christianity, or Buddhism, etc…. I say interesting to some, because even though I suspect the Muslims have killed fewer people in that way, it all still adds up to a lot of corpses.

      Here’s a nice piece that makes similar claims as I do, and much stronger. They also start off with this point: that the Buddhist identity of these particular fascists may be playing a role in others’ inability to recognize it as such.

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