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Archive for July 16th, 2013

Not all monks preach pacifism

Posted by African Press International on July 16, 2013

BANGKOK,  – Influential Buddhist monks in Myanmar have been aggravating longstanding tensions between the country’s Buddhist and Muslim communities since violence erupted between the two groups in 2012, say experts. 

“The Burmese Buddhist monks may not have initiated the violence but they rode the wave and began to incite more,” said Michael Jerryson, a religious studies professor and co-editor of Buddhist Warfare, a recent 2010 publication examining the violent side of Buddhism in Southeast Asia and how Buddhist organizations there have used religious images and rhetoric to support “military conquest”.

For example, the “969” movement (the numbers hold significance in Buddhist teachings) is a nationalist anti-Muslim campaign founded in early 2013 in Myanmar to protect Burmese Buddhist identity. Leaders have referred to Muslims in derogatory terms and accused them of attempting to dominate Burmese society politically and economically.

Supporters wear stickers identifying their membership, which are also posted on Buddhist-owned shops and kiosks to encourage Buddhists to conduct business only with other Buddhists, and condemn those who buy from Muslims.

Audio CDs blast hate rhetoric in restaurants and shops across the country, including the speeches of an influential and well-known monk, U-Wirathu, who has sparked fierce international criticism for his anti- Muslim speeches, according to local news.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused the government of not doing enough to stem his and other Burmese monks’ hate speech.

“The government is not implementing the basic rule of law to hold instigators of violence accountable… If you instigate and engage in violence you should be held responsible, whether you are wearing a saffron robe or not,” said Phil Robertson, deputy executive director for HRW in Southeast Asia.

While the ideals of Buddhist canonical texts promote peace and pacifism, discrepancies between reality and precepts “easily flourish” in times of social, political and economic insecurity, such as Myanmar’s current transition to democracy, according to Jerryson.

Monks serve as one of society’s main moral compasses in Theravada Buddhism – practised in Southeast Asian countries including Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Their influence has reached into the political life of most of these countries, creating a fusion between religion and national identity.

In Myanmar’s ethnically and religiously heterogeneous society, non-Buddhists are increasingly feeling the weight of Buddhist radicalism, say analysts.

Longstanding state persecution of non-Buddhists

Despite the country’s demographics boasting a 90 percent Buddhist majority of Myanmar’s estimated 60 million people, the “969” campaign is predicated on fear of the country being overtaken by Muslims (some 5 percent of the population, most of whom are both disenfranchized and stateless) determined to spread Islam and destroy Buddhist communities.

“Even the most peace-loving religious traditions can be fused with movements of ethnic anger and political power that lead to violence,” Mark Juergensmeyer, the director of the Orfalea Centre for Global and International Studies at the University of Santa Barbara, California, and expert on religious violence, told IRIN.

“If Islam, a religious tradition whose very name means peace, can be associated with violence [by extremists] it should be no surprise that there are angry Buddhists who become violent as well,” explained Juergensmeyer.

The entanglement of Buddhism with the Burmese national identity dates back to the 1962 advent of military rule, and continues even after a quasi-civilian government came to power in 2011.
Burmese politics promote a homogenous Buddhist, Burmese identity through longstanding state persecution of non-Buddhists, according to the Oxford Burma Alliance (OBA), an advocacy group based in London’s Oxford University promoting the rights of ethnic minorities in Myanmar.

“Persecution has always been part of the national policy of `Burmanisation’, an ultra-nationalist ideology based on the racial purity of the Burman ethnicity and its Buddhist faith,” reported OBA.

“When monks tell people violence is OK, and that it will gain [karmic] merit for people, it is a powerful enabling force”

Monks have historically played a prominent political role in Myanmar, most notably in the 2007 peaceful demonstration known as the Saffron Revolution. Tens of thousands of monks marched to denounce the military regime’s brutality, which resulted in thousands of arrests of monastic community members.

However, six years later, the monastic marchers are no longer preaching pacifism.

Violence targeting ethnic Rohingya (Muslims of Indian ancestry based in Rakhine State near the Bangladesh border) in June and October 2012 killed at least 250 and has resulted in the segregation of 140,000 Muslim Rohingya in almost 90 closed camps for internally displaced persons near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State.

Rioting spread in March 2013 to the country’s central city of Meikhtila, destroying up to 1,200 houses and killing at least 44 people. The latest violence marked the first time Burmese monks openly incited mass killings and the destruction of property.

And though 25 Buddhists were recently sentenced to as many as 15 years imprisonment for Meikhtila’s two days of bloodshed, these rulings followed weeks of punishments meted out almost exclusively to Muslims for violence that drove out some 30,000 Muslims from the city.

Fine print of pacifism

While the Buddhist teaching on `ahimsa’, or non-violence, is one of the religion’s five fundamental precepts, the impact on a person’s future life (another Buddhist belief is reincarnation) is not equal for everyone, but rather is based on the type of life form committing the violence and the intention of the perpetrator.

In Myanmar monks have used this belief to rationalize their dehumanization of Muslims, and classify violence against them as acts of self-defence, as long as the monks can prove “pure intentions”.

“Across Buddhist traditions, intention is an exception to the rule when committing violence,” said Jerryson. “If violence is seen as being a way to protect Buddhism and you have pure thoughts to help or defend that, then it becomes [acceptable],” he added.

But members in the international Buddhist community have condemned what they call manipulation of an exception to justify violence.

“We are deeply ashamed by the appalling treatment of Muslims now occurring in some Buddhist countries,” said Richard Gombrich, the founder and director of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist studies, referring to ongoing violence against Muslims in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and southern Thailand.

“Theravada Buddhists, and particularly their leaders, are betraying the Buddhist value of non-violence, let alone kindness and compassion,” he added.

Critics of Buddhist-instigated violence say monks are tapping into long-standing animosity between Buddhists and Muslims at a time of enormous social upheaval.

“Muslims have become scapegoats to displace people’s fear and frustrations,” said the author Jerryson.

“Powerful enabling force”

Since November 2011, Myanmar has opened up its economy to foreign investment, increased political space for disparate and previously suppressed ethnic groups – such as the Rakhine Buddhists – to have a voice, and lifted press censorship laws.

Living in the second poorest state in Myanmar, Rakhine Buddhists have suffered marginalization from the central government as an ethnic minority that has long fought for greater political power in the majority Burman-ruled country.

Against a backdrop of economic and political change, “people look to monks to guide them; monks are like externalized super egos for the community. When monks tell people violence is OK, and that it will gain [karmic] merit for people, it is a powerful enabling force,” said Jerryson, the religious studies professor.

Reconciliation looking difficult

While UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s statement earlier this month called on “moderate voices” from religious leaders and civil society to counter the country’s “dangerous polarization” and extremism, Robertson with HRW noted: “It is difficult for persons who want to stop the religious violence because then they are going against the religious and community leaders.”

Strong political and public support for “969” leaders and extremist monks have made it increasingly difficult for any Buddhists to speak out, while the near absence of government policies to promote community reconciliation heightens the risk of the re-emergence of violence.

Meanwhile, according to Refugees International, a US-based advocacy organization for displaced persons, Myanmar’s government continues to condone radical violent behaviour against Muslims by allowing hate speech to go unpunished, failing to protect members of the Rohingya community during recent outbreaks of violence, and continuing to arrest Muslim leaders in response to recent violence in disproportionate numbers.

Without addressing root causes as well as the grievances of all affected populations equally, inter-communal violence may spread to neighbouring countries hosting Buddhist and Muslim populations and pose “a further threat” to regional security and stability, warned the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

But all of this would require a shift in Myanmar’s attempt to create a Buddhist national identity.

“Reconciliation requires an ability by the state to establish a moratorium on violence. The idea that being Burmese means being Buddhist has to be put away,” concluded Jerryson.

dm/pt/cb  source http://www.irinnews.org

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Human rights groups insist that peace without justice is unsustainable and are urging Nigeria not to implement a blanket amnesty.

Posted by African Press International on July 16, 2013

DAKAR,  – As Nigeria attempts a ceasefire with militan t Islamist group Boko Haram (BH), analysts warn against a blanket amnesty and urge that an expanded International Criminal Court (ICC) probe include alleged abuses by the military.

The ceasefire is being negotiated by a government panel set up to develop an amnesty for BH, but details as to when the truce will be signed, whether all the BH factions have agreed to it, or if the amnesty has played a role in the planned ceasefire, remain sketchy.

Human rights groups insist that peace without justice is unsustainable and are urging Nigeria not to implement a blanket amnesty.

“War crimes, crimes against humanity, torture should not be subject to an amnesty. That is part of international law and part of ensuring a durable peace,” Elise Keppler, senior counsel in the international justice programme at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IRIN. “There could be an amnesty for taking up arms or committing lesser abuses, but the key is that it doesn’t extend to the gravest crimes.”

Nigeria has forgiven rebels in the past – most notably in the Niger Delta where militants who surrendered arms were pardoned.

Last year the ICC, which opened preliminary investigations into the BH unrest in 2010, found that there was a “reasonable basis” to believe that the militia had committed crimes against humanity, citing widespread and systematic attacks that killed more than 1,200 Christian and Muslim civilians in Borno, Yobe, Katsina, Kaduna, Bauchi, Gombe and Kano states in the north as well as Abuja, Kaduna and Plateau states in central Nigeria.

BH is accused of killing thousands across northern Nigeria since 2009. Militants have attacked churches, murdered civilians and carried out suicide bombings against security forces, newspapers, a UN office, markets and schools.

ICC urged to widen its scope

Analysts have urged the ICC to widen its scope to include the Nigerian security forces, which HRW and others accuse of killings, burning homes and ransacking towns including Baga, a remote community in the northeastern state of Borno.

“At the moment the ICC investigation is great for the Nigerian government as it’s just about BH,” said Kevin Jon Heller, associate professor and reader at Melbourne Law School.

“But the court is going to be essentially useless if it becomes the ICC for rebels. The biggest challenge for the court is how to investigate government officials and military officials that are associated with government when that government is still in power. I don’t think they have a very easy solution for that.”

Claus Molitor, a situation analyst with the Office of the Prosecutor, pointed out that the court has previously targeted top government officials including Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto.

“We follow the facts and we follow the law,” he said. “We base our decision on the legal requirements of the Rome Statute. It has nothing to do with policy. It has nothing to do with preferring rebels over government forces.”

“There is a reasonable basis to believe that BH did launch a systematic and widespread attack on civilians, but we can’t say the same for the state forces,” he added. “We’re not closing the door on anything at this stage. Should there be new information we will assess that.”

Mixed messages

Atta Barkindo, an expert on BH and researcher in political Islam, conflict and transitional justice in post-conflict societies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, however, believes that an amnesty could end the “continuous bloodletting and killing” and is important for reconciliation.

But he thinks the government of President Goodluck Jonathan has sent the rebels mixed messages. In April it offered an amnesty, then a month later declared emergency rule in the northern states and launched an air and ground campaign against BH.

“It’s like a war zone,” said Barkindo, who recently travelled to the region. “Soldiers are all over the place. There are checkpoints every 45 minutes and a curfew.”

Recent violence suggests that the military crackdown may not be working.

An attack in early July on a school in northeastern state of Yobe, one of the three under emergency rule, killed dozens of students. Some were reportedly burned alive and others shot. It is not yet clear who is responsible for the attack, but BH has previously targeted schools in the region.

SOAS researcher in conflict and identity in northern Nigeria Bala Mohammed Liman says determining exactly which crimes BH may have committed is difficult as its members are hard to identify.

“They are a shadowy group and apart from (leader) Abubakar Shekau no one is sure who the other members are,” he said. “Every act of criminality in the north is attached to BH, and the security forces are so inept that they haven’t been able to figure out who committed some of these crimes. So in the end everything that happens is said to be BH.”

ICC assessing judiciary

The ICC is now assessing whether the Nigerian government is investigating and prosecuting those who committed the most serious crimes. Under ICC rules, it can only intervene when the domestic authorities are unable or unwilling to prosecute.

Four members of BH were recently sentenced to life imprisonment for the bombings of an electoral commission office and a church.

ICC’s Molitor said that as part of its preliminary examination the court is monitoring the national proceedings. This includes speaking to people who monitor BH trials to determine fairness and whether the rights of the defendants are being respected.

“We haven’t come to any conclusions as yet,” he said, adding that Nigeria is cooperating with the ICC and that a team from the prosecutor’s office may visit this year to follow up on previous missions to Abuja.

Nigeria capable of prosecuting BH crimes, say some

Melbourne Law School’s Heller, however, said Nigeria was capable of prosecuting alleged BH crimes.

“Nothing is preventing Nigeria from prosecuting members of BH other than their inability to get their hands on them,” he said. “Nigeria has a functioning judicial system and has every interest in capturing and prosecuting high-level members of BH so why should the ICC waste its precious resources on prosecutions that the government is perfectly willing to do?”

SOAS’s Barkindo believes that Nigeria should take the lead on BH prosecutions to end the culture of impunity. “Nigeria needs to prove to its citizens that you cannot do these things and go free,” he said.

He also argued that neither amnesties nor prosecutions will work if the government does not address the fundamental problems in the north that give rise to militancy.

“If you don’t deal with these structural problems you will leave it open to another group coming up,” said Barkindo. “The government must address the issues of poverty, unemployment and particularly the issue of education. A lot of young people remain illiterate in northern Nigeria compared to the south.”

lc/ob/cb source http://www.irinnews.org

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