Who’s Responsible for Reining in Rogues?

Nationalist monk U Wirathu lashes out at UN rights envoy Yanghee Lee during a speech on Dec. 16, 2014. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Nationalist monk U Wirathu lashes out at UN rights envoy Yanghee Lee during a speech on Dec. 16, 2014. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

There are lines that one does not cross and words that one does not utter—especially if one is a man of the cloth. I am not going to bemoan: “Oh! What has the world come to? What has become of this noble order?!” This is about one individual—a demagogue running wild and potentially poisoning an entire society. Every age has its rogue characters, and ours is no exception.

The reader, no doubt, knows who this article is about. This is about a well-known Buddhist monk, U Wirathu, and his hateful words regarding a female human rights expert representing the United Nations.

When the words, ethos and collective emotions of masses are left to simmer unchecked for too long, they risk boiling over. Any sane and conscientious society should try to contain potentially harmful sentiments and nip the problem in the bud before it can be harnessed by ill-willed provocateurs. That such preventative measures haven’t happened in Burma a symptom of a societal malaise, and our chief rabble-rouser is a mirror held up to present-day Buddhist society.

The image in the mirror is clear, however homely it may be, and each member of this society needs to act thoughtfully and responsibly to change the course.

A man is shamed not by his birthplace or other incidental facts about him, but by his words and deeds. By extension, a society is shamed if it bows to the shameful, letting them run wild among the rest. Several hundred people listened and cheered when this demagogue spoke. There will always be a mob—people who are swayed by emotion and easily led by the nose—but we need to listen past that to the counter-voices of reason and sanity.

Those voices, admittedly, are both faint and scarce. If this disparity continues, the purveyors of poison will prevail.

The majority in Myanmar society will need to undergo a deep transformation to achieve greater understanding and tolerance for other faiths and ethnicities. The crushing dictatorship that lasted half a century swept those issues under the rug—or rather the bamboo mat. Now that the demons of those long-buried issues have reared their ugly heads, it is clear that containing the damage and handling the legacy of state-fostered intolerance is a far more critical concern than vague dreams of “democratization.”

This is where institutional responsibility comes in. Trouble is being fomented by extremists within the Buddhist clergy and the government is doing nothing about it. Even beyond the government’s correctional capacity, doesn’t the Sangha itself have a mechanism for dealing with rogue behavior? State props won’t help if the institution at the core of this controversy has no moral authority.

The state could nonetheless do more. There is a Ministry of Religious Affairs, and there are laws. Unfortunately, the government uses these tools as it likes and the rules are often unevenly applied. But the strongest and furthest-reaching impact that the government could have on this issue would come from political leadership, if it were only willing to speak up. This is an election year, after all, and anything that could cost a vote is assiduously avoided. But I would suggest that even Myanmar’s biggest issues, such as armed conflict and chronic poverty, are slighted by the problem of an immense political vacuity right up to the highest levels of governance. Nota bene: Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has also been silent.

The office of the UN human rights rapporteur has undergone a sea-change in Myanmar. There was a time when the military’s notorious secret police leaned heavily on it, while the democracy movement relied heavily on its support and intelligence. The office and its incumbent now face a new kind of pressure, one that is perhaps even stronger. But among this dismal picture there are still individuals who are not bereft of character and moral courage—for instance, the abbot of Mansu Shan monastery, who sheltered Muslim families when violence shook Lashio. These individuals embody this country’s real strength and hope for a promising future.

Khin Zaw Win is the director of the Tampadipa Institute in Rangoon.

12 Responses to Who’s Responsible for Reining in Rogues?

  1. Natives are not responsible.

    Invaders are responsible.

    Authorities who has accepted bribes for mosque building permission are responsible.

    Natives will not allowed their children ending up with burqa.

  2. Very well said. All those so called intellectuals are silent. What a shame on the whole country once produced leaders like U Thant, Bogyoke Aung San and the Nobel laureate D.A.A. Su Kyi who is scared to speak out. I am very surprised and can understand that she would be punished if she uttters a single word against those fake monk and his followers.
    Wirathu has become more strong lately due to the support he is been getting being the curtain by the military regime. Shame on Burma.

  3. You are a bad writer, you don’t even know big picture the problem. Little knowledge is dangerous, that is you Kin Zap Win

  4. Those of us foreigners who have the pleasure of living in burma know very well that the myanmar people are mostly tolerant, fair, kind people, whatever there religion. It’s such a shame that this racist xenophobic bigoted piece of dirt is being allowed and justified in ruining and disgracing the name of Myanmar and buddhism and bringin the world’s shame . Wirathu is not a monk. Nor is he a monk. He is nothing more or less than the Islamic State (IS) mrdering fanatics. It’s not buddhism he wants …. it’s extremist control and nationalist xenophobia.

  5. We need all Burma Sangar council which is elected by Sangars and not a tool of governement. Current council lost the reputation as military had used them when they need. It’s a tool of the government.
    This independent council should follow exact guidance of Buddha’s teaching and monks sermons (The military government is afraid if it’s REAL respectable council, then the whole country will follow them instead of the government !).
    If any monk deviate from Monk’s rules or not following these sermon should be disrobed and perhaps banned for certain period of time before he can start the life of monkhood again from the lowest Koyin level.
    Anyway this Wirathu should be taken care of by the authority. This guy is destroying our peaceful religion and Myanmar’s face on the world. He should be disrobed NOW.

  6. You have hit the nail on the head. So very well written and so true. I would just like to say “Cry, the Beloved Country”. It is all so sad. I’m tired and weary waiting for things to really change.

  7. Dear Sir,

    We have read on this subject from the late 2007 until today. Buddhism at war. Buddhist Terror! etc.

    Buddhist monks are men from local village who left home with consent but ordinate to be a monkshood. They are part of Burma’s society from the last 2500 year ago.

    Sayadaw U Uttama, Sayadaw U Visara and other prominent monks scarified lives for Burma’s independent.

    There are over / close to 200 prominent monks during U Nu’s era and until the late U Ne Win era in 1980s, monks are acting for the best interest of people they represented in a Buddhist nation.

    We may have over 150 Pariyatti Universities and Colleges in our country but monks have been learning the Tipitaka for over two thousand years in our country.

    However, the time had changed to this moment.

    Human rights laws are universal but it is a matter of each government and its own society to adhere them.

    There are laws in western nations such as racial discrimination, sex and gender discrimination laws but Burma is far to test these laws.

    It is a test of our leaders and our own cultural transition issue such as gender equality, separation of religions from state (secular state) and establishing a multicultural acts (laws to restore harmony and peace in the community).

    The Buddha used to live in the forest for six years when he required to stay away from quarrel of the monks in two factions. It is the fate of life. The Buddha used non-judgmental to the lay-monks but resolved the issues with Buddha’s wisdom, not the lay-men’s vision.

    Buddhist monks have been learning and teaching over 40000 pages of Tipitaka text books. They know the ‘rights vs wrong’ issues around them.

    It is not our lay-men’s duty to preach them. They will act by faith for theirs fate.

    If we have nothing to write, we could read good books from great scholars instead of writing about the monks’ affair. Therefore, I must stop here.

  8. In reading the details of Wirathu’s demonisation of the Rohynga, we see that it’s identical to the Nazis’ demonisation of the Jews prior to and during World War II- the vilification, the hatred, the mass hysteria and the ethnic cleansing. Our sincere Buddhist friends in Singapore are horrified by the incitement to murder by Wirathu and now the international press are now falling into the trap of labeling ALL Myanmar Buddhist monks as inciting genocide.

    This is tragic, as well all know the principles of Buddhism and yet those who wish the reforms to fail may see Wirathu as their saviour. What worries us is the irreparable damage done to the international reputation of Buddhism and the further discrediting this week in the international press of those allied with Wirathu. We guess the International Courts take a long time to grind into action.

    Yet can Myanmar’s reputation survive an International intervention to prevent this genocide? It took 5 years for America and even the Russians to defeat the Nazis, so the courts could take as long as that, we guess. Whilst some people are still blaming colonialism from 50 years ago, the globalisation of investment and need for America to release the main tranche of sanctions seems to have brought Myanmar to a total halt.

    All those commentators are right, we suppose, to assume that Daw Suu is terrified of condemning the genocide; she must think of her own survival first of course, even at the cost of further murders and burnings, yet it seems to have lost her the international backing which she so badly needed to bring pressure to bear to gain her access to the Presidency; it’s a great shame that this is preventing her from getting there. Ironic that after surviving all those years of house arrest she’s now trapped by these events. Obama has now declared he won’t move on to relax the rest of the sanctions which would then enable the Japanese government to guarantee all the loans needed for everyone to move on to prosperity, so we guess that’s the end of the economic reforms; so tragic when over 50 projects were dependent on Japanese aid.

    We guess now it’s back to China- the only chance: give the Myitsone dam the go-ahead and supply the timber, gems, oil and gas which they want; it’s the only chance of survival now the Japanese cannot give the loans. The anti-reformists seem to have won and Wirathu’s a great hero.

  9. I quote from that International report about Wirathu’s effects on the American’s refusal to remove the main sanctions and the resultant inability of Japanese banks to make any of the loans so far approved:

    “The tragic result is that the loan guarantees necessary for the Japanese government to release money for development cannot now take place, so the country is still left without electricity and infrastructure unable to attract investment”:

    There’s no educated workforce, no roads, wrecked railways, no deep sea port, an inefficient port facility at Yangon, almost no electricity (one of the three biggest barriers to any investment in manufacturing), ongoing ethnic insurgencies and with Shans being bombed this week, a genocide which is gaining in momentum against the Rohingya, a stalled oil exploration sell off, massive endemic institutionalised corruption, only 2% participation in Yangon local elections, still no compensation for land grabs, oil pipelines which operate at only 20% capacity, release of political prisoners only on condition they don’t speak out about their torture and reasons for their incarceration, almost no heath care or education budget, a massively increased military budget which Aung San Suu Kyi refuses to question, an almost complete lack of legal framework for investment, compulsory joint ventures, no transparency, massive land and property developments still going to cronies, particularly in Yangon, office and apartments and real estate generally costing more than downtown New York, massive endemic corruption, little collection of taxes because of bribes to taxmen, and most importantly, still no signs of real democracy.”

    Surely Wirathu’s supporters can be stopped from destroying the green sprouts of economic revival? We guess not, so better no more arguments about land grabs, working conditions, etc. Go back to work and take the Chinese offers and give them the control they need of Mandalay- let them build the dams and take all the electricity- stop giving them a hard time; let them take over- it’s the only chance for survival; the only hope of investment. Be fair- the Chinese need more space in Mandalay- so be reasonable. They need the space.

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