Buddhist Monks Behaving Badly

The boys in saffron are marching again. But this time there’s nothing that's noble about it.


The thousands of Burmese monks taking to the streets in protest against military rule in September 2007 became one of the defining images of the last decade. Five years later, the monks have been marching again. But this time around it’s not human rights and democracy they’ve been calling for, but the deportation of 800,000 ethnic Muslims from Burma.

Their demands come in the wake of failed attempts by President Thein Sein to garner international support for the resettlement of the Rohingya, the beleaguered ethnic minority who were involved in heavy rioting in western Burma three months ago. Images of hundreds of monks joining civilians as they marched in support of Thein Sein’s policy — ironically the largest protests in Burma since 2007 — have shocked those who revered the men in saffron robes as bearers of a democratic ideal untainted by politics and self-interest and as immune to government trickery.

But recent months in Burma have shown that our depictions of the pro-democracy movement are not as black and white as we led ourselves to believe. In contrast to five years ago, when monks rallied against the manipulated brand of "nationalism" that affiliated the political opposition with foreignness, they now support it. "Democracy is not fully practiced in our country yet," said the leader of the protests, Wirathu, after police attempted to disband them last week. "We can’t even support the president freely."

That statement is one of many examples of the glaring irony surrounding the anti-Rohingya movement. Ashin Htarwara, head of the All Burma Monks’ Representative Committee, said in an interview in July that Rohingya were "taking advantage" of the "humane" treatment offered by Arakanese "to commit murder, rape and robbery. I would like to urge those people [Rohingyas] to go back to their native land."

Amid all this, the role that the president, a former top general, played in the bloody crackdown on monks in 2007 appears forgotten, as do the parallels between the former junta’s treatment of monks and its attitude towards the Rohingya (both are communities that at one time or another were targeted by the military as a threat to "national unity").

The concept of nationalism, and how the Burmese regime has deployed it over the years to divide and rule the opposition, is key to understanding the crisis surrounding the Rohingya. The nationalist discourse was used to discredit Aung San Suu Kyi, whom the regime branded a foreign stooge, and the generals cited local traditions and customs as a way of accusing the outside world that it did not "understand" Burma during times of heavy repression.

The anti-Rohingya lobby, which includes prominent dissidents in Burma and abroad who claim the minority are illegal Bengali immigrants and thus not worthy of citizenship, has essentially adopted the same tactics. But the more recent involvement of monks adds another dimension, reinforcing as it does the allegedly intrinsic ties between Buddhism and Burmese national identity. Historically the two have always been close. Burmese saw their country as an arena in which to preserve the teachings of Buddha as they faded from India. In the 1920s, the anti-colonial struggle was taken up by powerful monks like U Ottama, thus transforming it into a religious one akin to India’s. This helped to politicize Buddhism. Dissidents also sought solace in belief during times of heavy oppression. Suu Kyi meditated for hours each day during her years under house arrest, as did jailed dissidents, including monks, who were subject to routine bouts of torture.

These monks apparently see the Rohingya — or, more accurately, any distinct ethnic group that solely practices Islam — as a threat to Buddhism, the political opposition’s most precious mental refuge. Heavy censorship in Burma has meant that the global perceptions of Islam that formed in the hysteria following 9/11 have been hard to correct; for many Burmese, the Muslims of western Burma remain aggressive proselytisers intrinsically linked with terrorism. Islam then becomes a threat to the supposedly morally superior way of living under Buddhism (the contradictions of a "moral" anti-Rohingya lobby notwithstanding).

This all feeds nicely into the regime’s effort to turn Burmese against one another, both justifying heavy-handed rule over society and ensuring that the cohesive anti-regime front of yesteryear is weakened. Moreover, tight restrictions on the movement of Rohingya around Burma ensures they are out of view of the vast majority of the citizenry, thus making the propaganda that much harder to combat. The more simple-minded "nationalists" accordingly see a concentration of disaffected Muslims — whose darker skin adds to their sense of foreignness — as an inevitable spawning ground for extremism.

Burmese academic Maung Zarni has written recently of "the careful construction of an iron cage — a monolithic constellation of values, an ethos — that locks in and naturalizes a singular view of what constitutes Burma’s ‘national’ culture." This iron cage needs to be opened, following Suu Kyi’s famous call in 1988 for a "revolution of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in those mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a nation’s development."

These protests show, however, that while small material gains may have been made in the past year, the illiberal and intolerant psyche of Burma remains. Protest leader Wirathu epitomizes the contradictions present among the pro-democracy forces calling for the expulsion of the Rohingya. His Masoyein Monastery in Mandalay has long been a hub for political organizing against the regime, and, less than a year ago, its leaders rallied crowds to press Thein Sein for an end to civil war in Burma, surely the clearest manifestation of ethno-religious hostility.

Yet Wirathu was arrested in 2003 for distributing anti-Muslim literature, and the monks he has led at the recent protests held placards that read: "’Not our race, not our blood, not our children — Drive out the lowlife Bengali Kalars from our country." ("Kalar" is a racial slur used in Burma for people with dark skin.) These are powerful battle cries from the same people who have campaigned for an end to conflict.

It is, in fact, the very prospect of the democratic transition demanded by monks in 2007 that has, in large part, fuelled the violence and animosity. The country’s elite, sensing that their political and economic interests are at stake, have tried to reassert their power by propagating the fear that national unity is under threat. The monks have become willing pawns in this.

"The violence between Rakhines [Arakanese] and Rohingyas in Arakan State is an example of how dictatorships all over the world use and rely on conflicts to stay in power," writes former monk Ashin Gambira, a leader of the September 2007 uprising, who has criticized the anti-Rohingya protests. "Everybody lives in fear and distrust of the other. Everyone sees the other with a suspicious mind. With this pressure, the people are defeated."

This band of monks who took to the streets in Mandalay earlier this month by no means represent the community as a whole, but they do correct the assumption that the Buddhist monastic order is always a peaceful one. Like any religion, Buddhism, too, can fuse with militant nationalism to combustive effect. In Burma, the spirit of xenophobia encouraged by General Ne Win after the 1962 military coup has had half a century to fester, thereby amplifying hostility towards other belief groups.

Sri Lanka has seen similar malevolence among monks, who have been behind sporadic attacks on Muslim shrines and mosques over the past year. A militant monks’ political group, the Jathika Hela Urumaya party, has a widespread following, and is led by Rathana, branded a "war monk" by the media for his relentless support of the state army’s hugely controversial assault on the Tamil Tigers.

The influence of the monastic community in Burma is similarly huge, meaning that even moderates who take the protesting monks’ words as gospel could be emboldened to join the campaign. This is a dangerous prospect, for these monks, who see their cause as a democratic one, seemingly adhere to the vision of a racially pure Burma. "When a mob protests against an ethnic group, then it is no longer a citizens’ protest," Maung Zarni notes. "It is a Nazi rally."

The Mandalay monks’ stance on the Rohingya is antithetical to democracy, and, like a parasite, its members feed off the by-products of Burma’s historic isolation: fear of "the other," as well as the conviction that diverging belief systems inevitably cause conflict. The demonstrating monks have discredited themselves in the eyes of many observers, yet the positive reputation they still enjoy in Burma risks lending the campaign a perverse legitimacy among those who have internalized this facile nationalism.


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