Does any religion in the world have a cleaner rep than Buddhism? With much of its efforts devoted to helping one realizing the divinity within him or her, it’s disinclined to repressive morality or proselytizing. More to the point, much less violence is committed in its name than that of the other great religions. The operative word is “less.”
For instance, Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka committed violence against Christians and Tamils. Even worse, during World War II, the Buddhist establishment — even Zen — cooperated, for the most part, with the militaristic Japanese regime. For more, read Buddhist Warfare (Oxford University Press, 2010) by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer.
Recently Burmese Buddhists — incited by monks, no less — have been conducting violent attacks against the Muslim Rohingyas with whom they share the Rakhine district, which borders Sri Lanka, from where the latter emigrate. Robert Fuller reports for the New York Times.
The Buddhist monastery on the edge of this seaside town is a picture of tranquillity, with novice monks in saffron robes finding shade under a towering tree and their teacher, U Nyarna, greeting a visitor in a sunlit prayer room.
But in these placid surroundings Mr. Nyarna’s message is discordant, and a far cry from the Buddhist precept of avoiding harm to living creatures. Unprompted, Mr. Nyarna launches into a rant against Muslims, calling them invaders, unwanted guests and “vipers in our laps.”
“According to Buddhist teachings we should not kill,” Mr. Nyarna said. “But when we feel threatened we cannot be saints.”
As if, Mr. Nyarna, there isn’t a world of difference between simply not being a saint and advocating ethnic cleansing. Earlier this month, at Reuters, Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall detailed some of the violence.
Tuesday [October 22] began with a massacre. … By 7 a.m. … hundreds of Rakhine arrived on boats to surround [the village of] Yin Thei, said a resident contacted by telephone. By late afternoon, the Muslim villagers were fending off waves of attacks. The resident said children, including two of his young cousins, were killed by sword-wielding Rakhines. Most houses were burned down. … A Yin Thei villager telephoned Musi Dula’s neighbours and said police were shooting at them. Another farmer nervously told Reuters how he watched from afar as police opened fire from the village’s western edge, also at about 5 p.m.
The official death toll is five Rakhines and 51 Muslims killed at Yin Thei, including 21 Muslim women, said a senior police officer in Naypyitaw, the new capital of Myanmar. He denied security forces opened fire or abetted the mobs. … As Yin Thei burned, the last of nearly 4,000 Rohingya Muslims were fleeing the large port town of Pauktaw, in a dramatic exodus by sea that had begun five days earlier.
Returning to the Times article, Fuller writes, “the country’s leading liberal voice and defender of the downtrodden, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been circumspect in her comments about the violence.” For their part, Szep and Marshall write that Suu Kyi’s “studied neutrality has failed to defuse tensions and risks undermining her image as a unifying moral force. Suu Kyi, a devout Buddhist, says she refuses to take sides.” [Emphasis added.]
Besides that she’s a Buddhist, how does she justify her silence? Seasoned Burma watcher and activist Roland Watson speculates. In April of this year he wrote:
It is difficult to fathom her actions, but a number of explanations are possible, including: She didn’t know how bad the Tatmadaw [Burma's army] was treating the ethnic groups; … she censored herself; she thinks the problems that the ethnic nationalities have are their own fault (as many Burmans [the majority ethnic group] believe) … or, she noticed that since the international community ignored the atrocities it was safe for her to do so as well. (Of note, the United States, her close advisor, for two decades only backed her and refused to acknowledge the regime’s war crimes.)
During his recent visit, writes Fuller, President Obama at least made a nod to violence against the Rohingyas.
Mr. Obama spent a considerable portion of a speech at Yangon University focusing on the importance of diversity, singling out the “danger” of the Rakhine situation and telling his audience “there is no excuse for violence against innocent people.”
But (Fuller again), like Suu Kyi, Burma’s President Thein Sein keeps the issue at arms length.
… President Thein Sein told a visiting delegation from the United Nations in July that only Muslims who have been in the country for at least three generations would be allowed citizenship. The rest were a “threat to the peace of the nation,” he said, and would be put in camps and sent abroad. The United Nations rejected the idea, saying that it was not in the business of creating refugees.
Diplomats say that Mr. Thein Sein has retreated from that position and is now talking about resettling displaced Muslim populations inside the country. He sent a letter to the United Nations just before Mr. Obama’s visit saying that once passions cooled he would “address contentious political dimensions, ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship.” But he offered no details or time frame.
Let’s return to Mr. Nyarna, who has a talent for putting his foot in his mouth, who said
… many Muslims do not “practice human morals” and should be sent to Muslim countries to be among “their own kind.”
Clearly, even some Buddhists need a refresher course in “human morals.”