Fear of Islam sparks Buddhist violence
“OF all the moral precepts instilled in Buddhist monks the promise not to kill comes first, and the principle of non-violence is arguably more central to Buddhism than any other major religion. So why have monks been using hate speech against Muslims and joining mobs that have left dozens dead?”
This question was posed in a BBC article published earlier this year.
This is happening in two countries separated by well over 1,000 miles of Indian Ocean – Burma and Sri Lanka. It is puzzling because neither country is facing an Islamist militant threat. Muslims in both places are a generally peaceable and small minority.
In Sri Lanka, the issue of halal slaughter has been a flashpoint. Led by monks, members of the Bodu Bala Sena – the Buddhist Brigade – hold rallies, call for direct action and the boycotting of Muslim businesses, and rail against the size of Muslim families.
While no Muslims have been killed in Sri Lanka, the Burmese situation is far more serious. Here the antagonism is spearheaded by the 969 group, led by a monk, Ashin Wirathu, who was jailed in 2003 for inciting religious hatred. Released in 2012, he has referred to himself bizarrely as ‘the Burmese Bin Laden’.
Well, today we learn that fresh sectarian violence struck north-western Burma at the weekend when a 1,000-strong Buddhist mob burned down dozens of Muslim homes and shops following rumours that a young woman had been sexually assaulted by a Muslim man.
A crowd surrounded the police station late on Saturday and then went on an hours-long rampage after authorities refused to hand over the assault suspect, a police officer from the area told the Associated Press.
About 35 houses and 12 shops – most belonging to Muslims – were destroyed before calm was restored, he said. There were no reported injuries.
The radical monk Ashin Wirathu, whose anti-Muslim rhetoric has placed him at the centre of rising religious violence in the predominantly Buddhist nation, posted news of the riot in the outskirts of the town of Kanbalu on his Facebook page.
The unrest – which has killed more than 250 people and left 140,000 others displaced – began last year in the western state of Rakhine, where Buddhists accuse the Rohingya Muslim community of illegally entering the country and encroaching on their land.
The violence, on a smaller scale but still deadly, spread earlier this year to other parts of the country, fuelling deep-seeded prejudice against the Islamic minority and threatening this country’s fragile transition to democracy.
Almost all of the victims have been Muslims, often attacked as security forces stood by.
Myint Naing, an opposition politician who represents constituents in Kanbalu, was outraged by the latest violence. He said Muslims and Buddhists have lived side by side in the area for many years.
There is a mosque in almost every village in our township and we live a peaceful co-existence. I cannot understand why the authorities were unable to control the crowd when it originally started.
According to this April report, the head monk at Mahamyaing monastery – Oo Wi Ma La – explained that anti-Muslim sentiment is grounded in the fear that Buddhism in Burma is under treat from Islam.
In Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, and so on there used to be so many Buddhists, but the Muslims came and kicked them out, and now they are Muslim countries. So based on history we worry Burma could become like that.
The monastery in Moulmein, southern Burma, is credited as the birthplace of the resurgent anti-Mulim 969 movement. The number signifies the attributes of Buddha and his teachings, and is sacred to Buddhists.