Rohingya people crossing the border into Bangladesh as they flee Myanmar

This article is a preview from the Winter 2017 edition of New Humanist.

In Myanmar’s central dry zone lies the town of Meikhtila, a rather nondescript trading hub that for many years remained largely unknown to the outside world. Its focal point, the space in which communities of all faiths had long interacted, had been the marketplace in the town centre. Each day, with the rising of the sun, Buddhists, Muslims, ethnic Bamar, Shan and others went there to buy and sell goods, as they always had. But for several months in early 2013, that all came to a stop. A fight in a gold shop between the Muslim owner and two Buddhist customers spilled out onto the streets, triggering three days of rage during which more than 40 people – the vast majority Muslims, as well as a Buddhist monk – were killed, and hundreds of houses burned.

The communal violence of March 2013 in Meikhtila wasn’t the first to strike Myanmar. The previous year, Buddhists and Muslims had attacked one another with alarming ferocity in the country’s westernmost Rakhine State. That conflict, between the two main ethnic groups who live there – Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims – has repeated several times. Since August, a military campaign, aided by Rakhine civilians and fanned by monks, has seen 600,000 Rohingya forced into Bangladesh.

Yet Meikhtila was the first time since the start of the democratic transition in 2011 that sectarian violence had affected towns in the country’s centre, and it felt like an aberration, not the norm – for centuries, communities of all faiths had lived and traded side by side in Meikhtila. When I visited, two weeks after the violence, it was clear something had altered dramatically. Entire Muslim neighbourhoods lay in ruins, their inhabitants holed up nearby in makeshift displacement camps, and a feeling of apprehension enveloped the town. As I picked through the rubble, Buddhists would often gather nearby, their long stares conveying hostility towards journalists.

I had gone there primarily to research the mechanics of the violence – how it was that neighbours could suddenly turn on one another in fits of bloody rage – but also to ­explore the role that nationalist monks had played in ­driving tensions between Buddhists and Muslims. In the wake of the 2012 violence in Rakhine State, monk-led groups that agitated against Muslims had grown in popularity, and their presence had confounded those outside Myanmar who watched as attacks on Muslim communities spread from town to town. Buddhism had always been considered an intrinsically peaceful belief system, and the monks seen as the guardians of its gospel of non-violence. But as the democratic transition advanced and more episodes of ­anti-Muslim violence broke out, that understanding began to shift. How were Buddhists who supported or ­perpetrated acts of violence able to rationalise their position? And had we misread the role that Buddhism played in shaping not only social norms but political outlooks too?

Having spent several days among the devastation in Meikhtila I travelled to a monastery in Mandalay to meet its abbot, U Wirathu, who by that point had developed a reputation as a chief protagonist in this hardline monastic movement. A wall outside his monastery was adorned with posters of Buddhists apparently wounded or slain by Muslims. Within its quiet, serene environs, they seemed wholly out of place. U Wirathu spoke of his belief that Muslims were responsible for every act of rape in the country, and that Muslim communities were complicit in a project to Islamise Myanmar – a line of argument that nationalists would often bolster by pointing to the demographic changes that began more than a century ago, when the ­British ­colonial power imported hundreds of thousands of workers to Myanmar from India.

Several months prior to the Meikhtila violence, U Wirathu had visited the town and delivered a sermon in which he beseeched Buddhists to break ties with Muslims, and boycott their businesses. Every penny that went to them would aid their expansionist project, he warned. “They will use that money to manipulate women, forcefully convert those women into their religion, and the children of them will become enemies of the state.” From that platform, Muslims would “destroy the whole nation and religion”.

After the Meikhtila violence, footage emerged of monks brandishing sticks and beating Muslims as they fled their homes. When I spoke to Buddhists in the following months, responses to the sermonising of U Wirathu and others like him were mixed. Some thought it ­dangerously inflammatory rhetoric that provided easy kindling for ­violence. Others shared his apparent fear of Islam, or at least were persuaded that a sinister threat lurked in their midst. His speeches were powerful, and to me seemed ­instrumental in converting floating fears over the resilience of ­Buddhism into something more tangible and volatile.

Yet those who sympathised with the message didn’t see U Wirathu as a violent provocateur – instead he was a “just” keeper of the faith. That faith was so intimately tied to the ­national identity in Myanmar that to protect it was to protect the land, and those considered native to it. For those who believed the danger of Islamic expansionism to be real, therefore, the responsibility of monks wasn’t solely one of propagating the Buddha’s teachings. Rather, it was to safeguard it, and the society that pivoted around it, against a community that by dint of its religion had increasingly come to be seen as both foreign and crusading.

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Since the consolidation of Buddhism as the de ­facto ­national religion in Myanmar nearly a millennium ago, monks have occupied highly venerated positions in ­society. They are the teachers and the moral guardians, the shapers and purveyors of social norms who are uniquely positioned to bestow – or withhold – legitimacy on the country’s rulers. But there is also another reason for the veneration of monks. Buddhists measure time by the ­rotation of four aeons, or kalpas. “Every Buddhist tradition maintains that we are in the final kalpa of the time ­cycle,” says Michael Jerryson, a lecturer at Youngstown State ­University and a specialist on Buddhist violence. Because time is considered to be cyclical, the first kalpa will one day recommence, but before that happens the world will descend into chaos and violence – a period known as the Age of Destruction. Among the various signs that this ­period is upon us is the failure to access Buddhist teachings and the disappearance of Buddhist monks who uphold these teachings, Jerryson says.

“So, when Buddhist monks caution about the threat to exterminate their Buddhist tradition, which invariably from their perspective is the one, true tradition, then there is this greater significance hanging over the situation.” The belief that this phase is fast approaching is a source of great angst among traditional Buddhists, and partly ­explains the acute anxiety felt in the face of assertions that ­Buddhism is under threat. Yet Buddhists can forestall the end, ­Jerryson notes, by upholding both Buddhist doctrine and the monks that furnish and protect that doctrine.

This partly explains the confused response from outside observers to the recent actions of monks in ­Myanmar. We in the West have assumed Buddhism – and Buddhists – to hold an ­innate acceptance of the fate of the individual, and an openness to those who don’t follow Buddha’s teachings. This ­obscures the fact that there is no faith whose followers act as a single unit, all looking through the same interpretative lens. Individuals will always ­retain agency and function as humans, susceptible to the same anxieties we all have. To see Buddhism as merely a set of rules to abide by misses its more profound function: as a belief system that orients and safeguards one’s place in this world and after. To threaten the faith is to threaten the health of the world that Buddhists inhabit.

The piercing of the myth of Buddhism’s inherent “goodness” has unsettled long-held but largely superficial ideas about the qualities of that faith, and few recent examples have proven as compelling as Myanmar. The current ­picture contrasts dramatically with the images of a decade ago, when thousands of saffron-robed monks took to the streets in September 2007. Those protests, triggered by a sudden hike in fuel prices but quickly characterised as a pro-democracy uprising, confirmed the romanticised ­image many had of Buddhism as chiefly concerned with the betterment of the individual and their society. The monks could reconcile their involvement in an ostensibly political cause with the antipolitics of Buddhist doctrine when they determined the cause to be higher than mere “politics” – namely, that of an end to the suffering inflicted on Myanmar’s society by the junta. Or so the assumption went.

It was only later that an apparently “dark side” to the monastic community emerged. I broached this subject with a monk I met in Mandalay who had marched in 2007, but who, owing to his more recent ­efforts to heal religious divides in a climate of deep hostility ­towards Muslims, had been shunned by many of his fellow monks. “When we talk about peace, they think we support Muslims,” he said. Yet when I suggested that this attitude among his fellow monks marked a dramatic change from the message conveyed in 2007, he disagreed. “The monks didn’t understand much about ­democracy. Most people who fight for democracy don’t understand it. They think it means that you can change the government and then do whatever you want.”

The monks marched against military rule in 2007, but, as time passed, it became increasingly unclear what their involvement in the movement was for. “[They] didn’t like the military, but they didn’t have any alternative answer,” the monk said. This view became more clouded after the anti-Muslim violence of 2012, when the first of the nationalist monk-led groups, known as the 969 Movement, took shape. The movement was a minority within a nearly half-million-strong monastic community in Myanmar, but it ­remained a mystery how this militant element reconciled its Buddhist beliefs with a violent political project.

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Ingrid Jordt has spent much of the past three decades conducting fieldwork in Myanmar. She now lectures at the University of Wisconsin but was ordained as a Buddhist nun in Yangon in 1988, the same year thousands of pro-democracy protestors were gunned down in the streets. She was also there during the 2007 uprising and understood the monks to have different motivations to those portrayed by international media. She feels that an ­o­­ver-romanticisation of Buddhism has impaired our ability to understand the call to defend the religion, and why some can deem it necessary to resort to violence.

“We have a problem discussing Buddhist violence ­because, in the West, Buddhism is still the last great idealised religion, and that means everything is cast in black and white,” she explains. The 2007 uprising was misunderstood accordingly. “We have a discourse about the flow of ­democracies, that everyone wants to become democratic. But we need to foreground what the expectations are ­regarding the goals of society, and the expectations we have in the West – of a multicultural society, rule of law, and so on – are totally different to Buddhist conceptions.”

Jordt believes that one cannot understand the political system in Myanmar unless they understand that the principles underlying the idea of “just” governance there derive from Buddhist models, not secular ones. Consequently, the course a society takes cannot be decided on the ground, so to speak, but is guided by forces that operate beyond our ­capacity as humans to direct.

“Burma’s is a closed system in which the legitimacy of the political realm, as well as the individual ruler, is based on extra-societal stimuli, and the distinction between this and a Western system is crucial. In Burma, the end of history is based on the end of the world and moral decline. The idea, therefore, that you can salvage a world through democracy is not a first principle. If this is missed from the analysis, then you’ll miss a huge part of the picture.”

While Buddhist violence has only recently come to public attention, it is by no means confined to Myanmar. Long before it manifested there, scholars were probing conflicts in Buddhist-majority countries elsewhere in Asia. In southern Thailand, where a Muslim insurgency has claimed more than 6,500 lives since 2004, Buddhist monks have implored followers to fight. Over the past four years in Sri Lanka, monks have led attacks on Muslim communities, deploying a narrative of Muslim conquest strikingly similar to that used in Myanmar. In September, a month after Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts in western Myanmar, Sri Lankan monks belonging to the Sinhala National Movement attacked a safe house in Colombo where Rohingya refugees were sheltering. They claimed that they did so to s­upport their fellow Buddhists in Myanmar.

Yet the degree of organisation of these movements has never matched those in Myanmar, which swiftly gained popularity after 2012. The most prominent was the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, or Ma Ba Tha. In May this year it was ordered to ­disband by the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, the government-appointed body charged with regulating the monkhood. But its dual role as both a self-styled protector of Buddhism and a provider of social welfare to neglected Buddhist communities meant that in its short life span it had attracted millions of followers across the country.
While the virulent anti-Muslim stance held by some of its robed figureheads continued to shock outside observers, its sympathisers maintained that it was a morally just defence of the faith. Jordt says that those like U Wirathu, who preached an exclusionary form of nationalism, were practising a form of selective moral disengagement – ­Muslims had harmed Buddhists first, so it went, and Buddhists were merely responding. Buddhists were the defenders, and Muslims the aggressors. “It’s a human failure,” she says, “not a ­philosophical one.”

In his sprawling monastery on the northern fringes of Yangon, I spoke to U Parmoukkha, a senior member of Ma Ba Tha. The question seemed simplistic, but still I asked: could violence ever be justified? There were no doctrinal grounds for it, he replied, but “when Buddhism is on the verge of extinction, violence could probably be used”. He seemed to be referencing the anxiety that greeted the fear of the approaching end times. Because only monks can slow that approach, any undermining of a monk’s position, or even his killing, would weaken the floodgates, and Buddhism would be wiped out.

Soon after the fight in the gold shop in Meikhtila in 2013, a group of Muslim men knocked a monk off his bike, beat him and set his injured body ablaze. He later died in hospital. Within hours, Buddhist mobs had assembled, and they went to work on Muslim neighbourhoods with unbridled ferocity. In the months after, small incidents – such as the accidental knocking to the ground of a monk’s alms bowl by a Muslim – triggered days of attacks on Muslim communities. It was deemed by many to be disproportionate, and, of course, it was. But left unexplored were the powerful ­existential fears to which Buddhists might be responding. It wasn’t only that monks had been attacked, but that the ­attacks happened at a moment when seismic changes in Myanmar’s society appeared to threaten a whole ­belief ­system. We who have long viewed Buddhism through a ­binary lens have been shocked at the emergence of the ­violent Buddhists. But they have always been there, and that shock is entirely of our own making.

Francis Wade is the author of "Myanmar's Enemy Within", published by Zed Books