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.