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Burma's Religious Battleground - And the Monks at the Heart of It

Burma's Religious Battleground - And the Monks at the Heart of It

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Published by: Thavam on May 28, 2013
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SUNDAY 26 MAY 2013
Six years ago, the world cheered the monks behindBurma’s Saffron Revolution. Now, a horrific neweruption of religious slaughter is being blamed on a‘Buddhist Bin Laden’. So what happened to the mantraof non-violence?
Less than six years ago, the West watched amazed and awed as hundreds of thousands of Burmese Buddhist monksseized the city streets in defiance of the military junta, walking through the monsoon rain in their robes, chantingthe sutra of loving kindness. Undercover video-journalists filmed it all, and when the riot police and the army wentin to club and shoot the monks, the same brave cameramen recorded every blow and every drop of sanctified bloodthat was spilt.For Westerners sympathetic to Buddhism such as myself, there was an extra reason to be impressed, even gratified, by the monks' courage. Other religions might carry out Crusades and holy wars, glorify murderous martyrdom,debate which wars were good and which less good, call down blessings on soldiers going into battle. This, by contrast, was the religion of the Dalai Lama, who said, with reference to the Chinese who had invaded hishomeland, "Your enemy can be your best teacher"; the religion whose first precept was not to kill anything; whosemonks had tried to bring peace in Vietnam. The religion whose methods for calming the mind and cultivatingequanimity have been refined over millennia, and which, on that account, has gained tens of thousands of adherentsin the West. I reported the monks' revolt for this newspaper from southern Burma. An aged monk there gave me astring of beads which I still wear.Less than six years later, it's hard to recapture the mood of those days. It's hard to recapture one's own lostinnocence. Today, the undercover video-journalists in Burma are working for the world's Islamic media, and thefootage that finds its way on to YouTube is more hideous and disturbing than anything filmed in 2007: murdered babies, blackened corpses laid out neatly on the ground, a terrified figure fleeing then clobbered and felled by afierce blow, surrounded by men baying with bloodlust, doused in petrol and set alight; still twitching and squirmingas he dies.
This is the legacy of the eruptions of the past year: of June and October in Arakan, in the far west, then in March inMeiktila, in the centre of the country, repeated during the following weeks in towns and villages further south. Noone knows whether this fire has burnt out or whether there is more to come. As I write, Burma's president, TheinSein, a Buddhist like more than 90 per cent of his countrymen, is reported telling the nation that the Muslimminority must be protected. Yet there is no confidence that this will happen. While I was in Rangoon in the farsouth of the country last month, a fire broke out in a madrassa in the city centre, killing 13 boys. The authoritiesinsisted it was caused by an exploding transformer, and arrested Muslims at the scene. Spokesmen for Muslims inthe city who I spoke to insisted it was arson. No one can be sure that these events have run their course.Nor is this some eruption of racial fury from which the Buddhist monks can stand piously apart. On the contrary,they are widely seen as bearing responsibility for the carnage. Some are even accused of taking part in the mayhem.One of the most revered Buddhist teachers in the country, Sitagu Sayadaw, wrote in Burma's most widely readnewspapers that he "deeply denounced these racial… conflicts without exceptions… Lord Buddha teaches non- violence." The nation's 500,000 monks, he went on, "should deploy the weapon of loving-kindness… to dismantlethe ugly unrest". But while this is a tone we might expect to hear from a Buddhist master – even if the comparisonof loving-kindness to a weapon was unfortunate – his message was drowned out by the rants of younger, stridentteachers with very different ideas in mind.The monk who has recently become internationally famous thanks to his grotesque moniker of "the Buddhist BinLaden" is tiny, no more than 5ft tall, delicately made, with prim cupid's bow lips in his pale and unmarked face. Hissingle name is Wirathu. I meet him in his leafy monastery in the south of Mandalay, a monastery, the New Ma Soe Yein, previously of inspirational importance during the Saffron Revolution – the 2007 anti-government protests. A turbulent, frame-shaking, game-changing place, despite its peace and tranquillity. We sit in the sunshine and I ask him the obvious questions. Wirathu tells me he does not condone violence againstMuslims, let alone advocate it. What he does advocate is shunning them: encouraging Buddhist shops and taxis andother businesses to identify themselves as Buddhist, and encouraging the Buddhist public to patronise those businesses and not those belonging to the other community.That is a long way from dousing individuals in petrol and watching them die. But it is not totally unconnected. Bothactions – the passive shunning, the active slaughter – can be placed on a spectrum of responses to the message: thatcommunity is alien, and it menaces your safety and prosperity and the very future of your race and your religion."Our goal is a strategic one," Wirathu tells me. "We represent Burma's 135 ethnic groups. We are urging members of those ethnic groups not to follow the Muslim religion and not to sell anything to Muslims, and that includes paddy fields and houses. The reason is that we have to protect our religion. If we trade with the Muslims, they becomerich: many Muslims have grown rich and have built big houses for themselves, and mosques, and slaughterhouses, which are a problem for Buddhism. Muslims are now dominating the Burmese economy." By urging Buddhists toput stickers in their windows to identify themselves, Wirathu and his fellow zealots hope to reverse the tide.The paranoia seems laughable: no census has been carried out in Burma for decades, but it is believed that Muslimsaccount for no more than 5 or 6 per cent of the population. While Muslims have been coming to Burma forcenturies as traders, it was with the arrival of the British in 1824 that they first settled in the southern part of thecountry in large numbers. In Rangoon, the former capital which is still the commercial hub, they are just onecommunity alongside Hindus, Chinese and Indian Christians in a rich and usually stable ethnic mix. What on earthdo the Buddhists have to fear? Yet if you travel to Arakan state, in the far west of the country, the source of these apprehensions becomes apparent.The majority of the community here is Buddhist, but they regard themselves not as Burmans, the nation's dominantethnic group, but as Arakanese, a different race, conquered by the Burmans in the 19th century and forced to bow down to the Burman king.
 While Burma as a whole fought for its independence from the British, the Arakanese fought a separate struggle –post-independence – for liberation from the Burmans. And with the partial return of democracy, they are makingstrides: in the 2010 general elections, the Arakan nationalists gained a majority in the state assembly. But freedomfrom the Burmans is only one of their demands; the other is freedom from what they regard as the menace of Islam. Arakan has a long land border with Bangladesh. Additionally, its coastal district of Maungdaw runs parallel withBangladesh's long, narrow Sabrang peninsula, only one hour away by sea, and the population of Maungdaw is now said to be 97 per cent Muslim. A Muslim community called the Rohingyas is recorded as living in Arakan state since at least the 18th century, butits population has grown exponentially in recent decades. The Arakanese nationalists are riding high in Burma'sfragile new democracy because they appeal to the twin fears of the local people: Burmanisation on the one hand,and Islamisation on the other.It was in Arakan, nearly a year ago, that the latest incident of 50 years of communal violence began, after a Buddhist woman was raped and killed by three Muslims. The second bout, in October, which led to as many as 125,000people – the great majority Muslim – being housed in camps, was also in Arakan. A general explanation for Arakan's hostility to Islam is not hard to find. The border here is one of the world'scivilisational fault lines: like the India-Pakistan frontier through the Punjab, the line between Serbia and Bosnia inthe former Yugoslavia or the line between north and south Nigeria, it is one of what the influential Americanpolitical scientist Samuel Huntington called "Islam's bloody borders".Muslims and Christians have been at each other's throats for 1,300 years, but there is no love lost between Muslimsand Buddhists either. No religion is more prolific in its imagery than Buddhism; none more iconoclastic, moreimage-hating than Islam. When the Taliban blew up the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, we in the West denounced it as an act of heritage vandalism, but many Buddhists took it far more personally: as a declarationof intent. It reminded them that Buddhism was a great and flourishing religion in India until the invasion of Mahmud of Ghazni in the 10th century. Within a century or so, with the destruction of Nalanda University andthousands of temples, it was a fading memory, preserved mostly in Tibet. While Buddhism may profess values such as loving-kindness and selflessness – and therefore be all the moreculpably exposed when it betrays them – Islam presents itself to the Buddhists as a rigid and hermetic sect. Wherethe West, the "human-rights imperialists", see poverty-stricken Muslim fishermen squatting in squalid refugeecamps after the Buddhists burnt down their houses, Burma's Buddhists see the thin end of an Islamic wedge which,if not halted, would expand to include Sharia law and all of Islam's other dictates.Buddhism has a gentle, sagacious face, and as long as a Westerner takes off his shoes and socks and pays theentrance fee, he is welcome to wander around any Buddhist monument in Burma. Islam offers a sternercountenance, especially these days – and especially here on this bloody border, with militant Islamism enjoyingsuch a boom inside Bangladesh that tens of thousands of bearded demonstrators took over the streets in recent weeks, demanding the nation become a hardcore Islamic state. When they look not merely at what happened in India 1,000 years ago but at Islamic insurgencies in southernThailand and the southern Philippines and at the increasingly hardline Islam of their regional neighbours, majority-Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia, not to mention Bangladesh, the Buddhists in Burma may have a point. Perhaps weowe it to them to be less patronisingly dismissive of their apprehensions. That, of course, does not mean condoningany of the hideous crimes committed in their country over the past 12 months.The other big question these terrible events prompt regards not them, but us. All right, not us but me. Was I justterribly suckered by all this Dharma stuff, those calm smiles, the Dalai Lama's effulgent humanity, the great tide of saffron washing through the streets of Mandalay?

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