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Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

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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Rising Muslim-Buddhist tensions

Posted by African Press International on June 14, 2013

COLOMBO,  – An increasing number of Muslim Sri Lankans, who make up around 9 percent of the population, are feeling uneasy amid fears of growing sectarian tensions, say local people and observers.

“We just don’t feel we belong here any more,” Fadhil Ahamed, who works in a food store in Colombo, told IRIN. “I had a shop where I sold halal food, but several Buddhist monks who were aligned with a government politician told me not to sell halal food as this was a Sinhalese Buddhist country.”

There is increasing fear within Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim community, the 54-year-old said, and many feel they are being targeted by ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups because of their faith.

“Tensions are clearly on the rise. There is a lot the government and especially the police can do to handle this situation. It does not look like this is happening, and thus tensions are on a high as we speak,” said Ahamed Lebbe, a former school teacher and community activist in Batticaloa.

In recent months, groups led by Buddhist monks have spread allegations that Muslims have been dominating businesses, while at the same time claiming they are trying to take over the country by increasing their birthrate, local media reports say.

Sinhalese-Buddhists comprise almost 75 percent of the country’s 20 million people, according to the Department of Statistics and Census.

Arrest

In May, Azard Sally, an outspoken Muslim politician and a former deputy mayor of Colombo, was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorist Act, for “instigating communalism”, according to police sources.

Sally is an outspoken critic of a new hardline Sinhalese Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Strength Force), which since February 2013 has reportedly attacked a number of Muslim-owned commercial establishments, and agitated against certain religious practices, including the halal system of slaughtering animals for Muslims.

Sally is also a vocal critic of the government of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse and blames the authorities for allowing an anti-Muslim campaign that culminated in an arson attack on two Muslim-owned businesses in March.

Though released on 10 May, his arrest underscores growing anxiety among many Sri Lankan Muslims.

“It seems as if they [the government] pervert the law to arrest anybody who stands to protect the Muslim community,” said Fatima Mira, a university student from Colombo.

“When Sinhalese extremists attack Muslims, the government watches as spectators, while when Muslim politicians stand up for their community, they are arrested and painted as terrorists,” the 32-year-old said – a sentiment echoed by others.

“There is no peace for Muslims this year in Sri Lanka,” said 46-year-old Muslim Colombo resident Hazeel Segu, a local community leader.

Polarized society

According to Jehan Perera, who heads the National Peace Council in Colombo, Sri Lanka continues to be a polarized and fragmented society at various levels – economic, social, religious and political, more than four years after the country’s 26-year civil war officially came to an end. This has led to a lack of communication and acute mistrust between parties on different sides of various divides, including Buddhists and Muslims.

“There is a sense of exclusion among communities, who feel they are not being included in national decision-making and in enjoying the fruits of development,” Perera said.

Since 18 May 2009, when government forces declared victory over the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), who had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland for more than 25 years, the country has failed to make a successful transition to a sustainable peace, said Dayan Jayatilleka, former Sri Lankan ambassador (2007-2009) to the UN in Geneva.

“The blocked transition is due to the unwillingness of both major communities [Sinhalese and Tamil] to be self-critical and to reach out to one another in order to forge a new social contract,” he told IRIN.

Moreover, the recent upsurge of anti-Muslim rhetoric from Sinhala Buddhist extremist groups like Bodhu Bala Sena and Sinhala Ravaya has rekindled fears of an inter-communal conflict, said Jayatilleka.

Call for more inclusive government

Meanwhile, Rajiva Wijesinha, a ruling party MP and Sri Lanka’s former secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, described recent agitation by certain groups as “counterproductive”, and has called on the government to do more to mitigate racial and religious tensions.

“What [the] government must do is be much more inclusive and have more discussion between all parties and make it very clear that the government rejects extremisms in all its forms,” Wijesinha said.

“While we understand that there are fears of certain groups, we cannot allow fears to dominate the discourse. Driving concepts should be concepts of national unity and sympathy for others. One very simple thing that government can do is to arrest people who are engaged in violence and it is disgraceful that this has not been done. The fact that Azard Sally was arrested for a comment shows a complete bias.”

contributor/ds/cb source http://www.irinnews.org

 

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