In Burma and Sri Lanka, Anti-Muslim Nationalism Opens Wounds

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to Muslim men in Rangoon amid tensions fueled by attacks on Muslims in Arakan State in June 2012. (Photo: Hpyo Wai Tha / The Irrawaddy)

Recent incidents of anti-Muslim religious nationalism in Sri Lanka and Burma, ostensibly in defense of the Theravada Buddhist faith held by the majority, have opened fresh wounds.

Growing violence appears in danger of spinning completely out of control in Burma, most lately in the town of Okkan on the outskirts of Rangoon, where a Buddhist mob burned as many as a dozen homes and ransacked a shop shouting “Let’s destroy the property of Muslims.” Two mosques were desecrated and Qurans were torn to pieces.

Some of these are violent events with alleged government or Buddhist monastic (sangha) backing. Others appear spontaneous, beyond the control of state and Buddhist hierarchy. Either way, they are destructive and troubling. Buddhism is revered as a faith of healing and mercy, but like all religions, it can promote contradictory elements of triumphalism and intolerance.

Both countries are newly emerged from recent politically traumatic experiences: the release from a decades-long military autocracy (Burma) and the ravages of a civil war (Sri Lanka). Both are spectacularly ill-served by this latest outburst of jingoism in the name of a faith that in both instances appears to be manipulated to meet political ends.

Turning first to Burma, the state has a long record of relations between the majority Buddhists (90 percent) and minority religions, notably Muslims (5 percent) and Hindus (3 percent). Muslims from a variety of Middle Eastern and Central Asian ethnic backgrounds were at one time a welcome part of historical Burmese kingdoms, traders for the most part, but even serving in the infantry of the great king Mindon Min in the mid-19th century.

Others, particularly the Rohingya in Arakan State bordering on present-day Bangladesh, filtered across porous borders over decades. More controversial were thousands of Indian Muslims brought in by British colonial officials for their commercial skills and hard work.

Anti-Muslim outbreaks associated with Burmese Buddhist economic resentment occurred periodically prior to independence. But Muslim fortunes in Burma were virtually ruined by the 1962 military takeover of the state. The Rohingya in particular were held back by the 1982 Citizenship Law, which required proof of ancestry in Burma for three generations.

Elsewhere, in 1997 the government allegedly provoked a violent anti-Muslim riot as a diversion over the disappearance of a precious, mystically powerful ruby rumored to have been stolen by superstitious generals from the famous Maha Myat Muni Buddha image in Mandalay.

Further attacks in 2001 in Taungoo and Pyinmana were precursors of the vicious 2012 pogrom on Rohingya communities in western Arakan State. This sometimes featured Buddhist monks in the vanguard of activism organizing and encouraging forcible relocation of the Muslim population. More recently in March of this year, a minor altercation in a Muslim-owned gold shop in the small mid-country city of Meikhtila was suddenly compounded by the murder of a Buddhist monk.

This provoked a week-long rampage. Dozens of pro-Burmese motorcyclists suddenly appeared. Photos of a Buddhist monk manhandling a bulldozer, and of police standing by while Muslim buildings burned, lent credibility to the suggestion that military parliamentarians disgruntled over the reforms of the government of President Thein Sein were behind the incident, perhaps a circuitous appeal for a return to military rule.

Though Muslims are only a fragment of Burma’s population, a recent avalanche of rumors about rising Muslim economic and demographic dominance is further spurred on by widespread circulation of inflammatory Islamophobic DVDs. These are complemented by the infamous and relentless hate-filled sermons of the maverick Buddhist monk Wirathu of Mandalay’s otherwise prestigious Masoeyein Monastery.

The vitriol spills over into street-level social and commercial relations, with Buddhist businesses demarcating their premises with a special number (969) purporting a spiritual significance, and Muslims adopting something of the same strategy with their own sacred numerals (786).

Left unresolved, these unsavory activities are serious harbingers of a possible failure of Burma’s three-year experiment with reform and democracy.

Second, Sri Lanka is an example of how sectarian conflict can ruin an otherwise fortunate country. Despite the end of the long civil war in 2009, inter-community relations have sharply deteriorated, and minority vulnerability is high.

This has provided space for a new, anti-Muslim ethnic fault line. Lankan Muslims make up only 9 percent of the population and have a centuries-old historical lineage with the Middle East. Many Muslims have been caught by surprise at the recent turn of events, believing themselves to be well integrated, loyal to the state during the civil war, and with longstanding senior appointments in government.

But the roots of Buddhist resentment and suspicion about Muslim presence in Lanka emerged a century ago with the introduction of the “Aryan myth” into Sinhala politics, which claimed that all minorities live in Lanka by the grace of Sinhalese supremacy and must know their secondary place.

This was the background to the infamous 1915 anti-Muslim riots. Nowhere was motivation for an activist Sinhala Buddhist role more clearly articulated than in Ven. Walpola Rahula’s 1946 ground-breaking “Bhiksuvage Urumaya” (The Heritage of the Bhikkhu).

An intense religio-ethnic struggle had come to characterize the nation, and Buddhism played a critical role in fostering a tough, uncompromising ethnocentric faith, characterized by the 1956 and 1983 riots, this time focused on Ceylon Tamils. An appeal to neo-traditionalism, rather than a needed reappraisal of the role of the sangha and Buddhism in public life, became commonplace.

The situation in 2013 is really not much different in this matter. Just as even an educated Sinhala middle class was persuaded that the Tamils were taking over commercial, educational and professional opportunity in Lanka in the 1980s, now there is renewed antipathy toward the longstanding indigenous Muslim community, an attitude that thrives under the present government, feeling vindicated by the victorious Eelam war.

Anti-Muslim actions have involved attacks on mosques with little or no effective police response, claims that national examination results are distorted to favor Muslims, demands for repeal of Halal certification with the claim that its fees go toward mosque construction, ludicrous conspiracy theories (e.g., that certain sanitary napkins sold in Muslim stores to Buddhist women lead to sterilization), claims that Muslim families are too large, and malicious spreading of rumors of rape and coercion. Within the last year there have been attacks on Muslim mosques or businesses in Dambulla, Gampola, Peliliyana and Colombo, some involving stone-throwing Buddhist monks.

This is accompanied by the sudden rise of the Bodhu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force), a relatively new expression of Sinhala ultra-nationalistic patriotism. The organization uses crude language to describe, for instance, Muslim imams, and is also actively anti-Christian.

It has top-level patronage support, with its new leadership academy in Galle opened by Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who recently intoned, “It is the monks who protect our country, religion and race. No one should doubt these clergy.”

Buddhism is not a monolithic organization in Sri Lanka. The sangha is comprised of approximately 30,000 monks (bhikkhus) belonging to three principal nikayas, in turn divided into many smaller groups. Each monastery is virtually an autonomous unit.

This indicates that centralized authority over the conduct of sangha members is almost non-existent. Buddhism’s many nuances, structural and ideological, make it impossible for senior monks to dictate an alternative official Buddhist position or to propose any one sweeping commentary on its participation in the political destiny of the country.

This is compounded by a current climate of fear and helplessness, with people silent or unable to speak out against rampant injustice, intimidation and violence. The government appears indifferent to alternative opinions and is obsessed with majoritarianism, not with unity in diversity, or equality and justice in a pluralistic state.

Lankan moderates, of which there are many, have failed to sustain or act on inter-religious friendships and to speak out and protect each other. Regrettably there is no key internal pressure from the electorate to challenge the slide into communalism, despite the horrors this stance has visited upon Lanka since independence in 1948.

Muslim leaders have not been confrontational, and remain largely conciliatory. But there is the risk of Sri Lanka losing any political and economic goodwill the government might have built up with Middle East countries, many of which are huge sources of employment for Sri Lanka domestics and their important economic remittances.

No government representing a majority Buddhist population should tolerate such anti-Muslim activism. As Ven. Arriya Wuthu Bewuntha, abbot of the Myawaddy Sayadaw Monastery in Mandalay has put it, “This is not what the Buddha taught.” But in both Burma and Sri Lanka, this is an ongoing uncomfortable reality. It remains to be seen what further deleterious consequences these events will have for these nations.

Bruce Matthews is a professor emeritus of comparative religion at Acadia University in Nova Scotia.


12 Responses to In Burma and Sri Lanka, Anti-Muslim Nationalism Opens Wounds

  1. Well written article. I believe the professor got sound understanding on spiritual and noble values of Load Buddha’s Teachings. One missing aspect of this analysis is that you did not consider the geo-social binding between Buddhism and the society. In similar to what the church does in politics in European region, this part of the word too takes help from Buddhism for regulating the society. For an example law alone cannot stop all crimes, so Buddhism got to play the major role in that. It is wrong to assume that everyone equally understand the absolute truth (noble truth) of Buddhist Teachings and restrain from BAD. The solution is to add some spiritual authority to GOOD, so the BAD automatically trampled underneath. This is how Burma becomes the happiest society in the world and Sri Lanka become famous for hospitality. If this framework is broken, evil forces will take up the charge and will ruin the entire society. Both Burma and Sri Lanka have live examples of this mistake in their neighbouring countries. Malaysia and Indonesia were Buddhist ruled countries. But what has happened to them now? Innocent men and women are now ruled by undeveloped and primitive laws like Sharia. Not only that, they forcefully expand the domination to other countries. Malaysia is now backing up terrorism at southern parts of Thailand. So Burma should do the same mistake? Bangladesh was a 100% Buddhist ruled country. Now their innocent civilians are suffered by wild law. Women stone to death without a court process. Should Sri Lanka do the same mistake? In nutshell, the best is, all remaining Buddhist counties should get together and take collective actions to protect its society from undue influence from foreign religions. Unfortunately all governments in all Buddhist countries are still just ignorant so ordinary people start re-acting in violent manner.

  2. Such an insightful treatise but with one major fault of taking the current Burmese government in the currently popular schizophrenic way. Rather than Thein Sein being a separate “Nobel Entity” striving for the goodness and the progress of the humanity of the people of Burma as self-serving “Western” publications and their leaders’ and representatives’ frequent and LOUD pronouncements and proclamations would make people – in Burma and around the globe- to believe, he is simply an actor appointed by Than Shwe for the sole purpose of using the apparatus led by him as a front for the Sit-tut to get on with business , only now in well supported and coordinated way with the business communities around the world.

    One thing the international business communities, ruthless and cynical, greedy and heartless as they are, would not have realize is that their “New and Improved” business partner for the loot and rape of the land Burma and the enslavement of the people for one-dollar- a-day jobs (Oh! JOY!!!) carries a baggage of non-business friendly Most Virulent Form of Chauvinism with which they are prepared to commit massive scale heinous acts in planned systematic ways while corrupting the ignorant and fearful, and thus fearsome, populace of Burma.

    Sri Lanka, that birth place of “Necklacing” and “Suicide bombing”, has also had its share of “western” connivance and support for all the atrocities done in the name of religion and race. Interestingly Norway generously lends itself to be the cheerleader of the thugs in both countries. Wepola or not the dominant Buddhist clergy’s attitude in Sri Lanka is at the very least totally non-Buddhist. And the Burmese monks admire them.

    For Sri lanka, apart from the Awizi-going Rajapaksa Brothers. Inc. and similar militant Sangha, majority Sinhalese also showed and are showing no remorse whatsoever of worse-than-animal slaughters of tens of thousands of Tamils in Mullaitivu and elsewhere. Does seem there is very little shame and humanity left in general populace in that land of the “Buddhism”.

    Thein Sein and his coworker Aung Thaung and equally Awizi-going parts of Buddhist Sangha (some educated in Sri Lanka) in Burma inciting and initiating the inhumane and disgraceful attacks and atrocities on helpless multitude in the name of religion is in fact natural progression one can easily predict from the way the “World” or more accurately international corporations and their agents pampering and applauding the same looters and rapists of the country.just because they want to join them.

    But here comes the real question:

    Would the genuine Burmese Public also show the same degree of Cruelty, Ruthlessness, Stupidity and Ignorance as those Awizi-going thugs to dish out inhumane acts on defenseless, innocent people each time the Band Master call the tune?

    Yes!! And Good, All are doomed. Short story. TOGETHER. No good can ever,ever,ever come out of cruelty and injustice whatever religion one believes or fake to believe.

    If they are indeed wise enough, sharp enough and reflective enough not to dance like monkey every time the Band Master calls the tune, each attempt to incite will show true color of the minority which is the dominant force in the country Burma.

  3. Bruce Matthews should have described the ethic cleansing by Tamil Tiger terrorists when they were in control of the North and East of Sri Lanka – Muslims and Siinhalese were forcibly ejected then!

  4. British colonial rulers brought the Muslims. But they forgot to pick them um when British colonialists left Burma. These Muslims must be brought back to where they belonged or the British should settle them in Britain. Colonial mess is still everywhere in Burma.

    • Who brought the Burmese and from where did they originate 3000 years ago? Human being has led a bohemian life and from centuries to centuries, races have changed their habitat. There have been frequent movement by each and every human race in this universe. Following your theory, it will not be possible to locate a single space where a race belonged permanently. Rohingya people have been living in the arakan for centuries before the British rule. It is not your daddy’s property to slash and burn. They got more right than you.

    • To Kawia
      Do not forget there are lots of Burmese refugees (economic or political) driven out by past and present military regime settling and enjoying the western life style in UK, US and all over Europe. Even across the border in Thailand and Malaysia thousands of Burmese refugees are waiting for the resettlement else where rather than going back to Burma where there is no guarantee for their survival or safety. Should they be forced to leave from their host countries ? So please think rationally and avoid the Hippocratic and short sighted remarks which is not beneficial for the society. There are undeniable history of Muslims living in Burma (Burma) and served various civilian and military posts under the Burmese kings.

  5. @Kawia:
    These people live in Myanmar now and have the same right to live there as any other Myanmar citizen. Why don’t YOU “go home” to African bush where all of us mankind come from? Don’t like the thought to go there, uh? Of course, this “claim” is as idiotic as your claim Burmese Muslim citizens have to “go home”.
    Just stop citing fascist and racist theories of who belongs to where. They only bring mourning and disgrace over you and your country. In addition, these lies hinder you seeing the real problems: Few people that have what they need. Some very few, very, very rich people – and many, many poor people that are slaving all day for some rich people to be able not to move a finger. This creates huge social tensions as this situation is not fair.

    P.S.: These rich people are over 95% “Aryan Race” Burmese.

    Mayb this could be one reason why these people are quite happy that this social tension is ventilated at some non-aryan “3rd-Reich jewlike” Muslims – and not in their frontyards where the hatred is spreading from.

    Pull out the root of the hatred – create social justice. Don’t be trapped in some hate-storys of greedy and ignorant bastrards. It’s neither good for your intellect nor for your carma.

    • Let’s clarify on the word Ariya. This has nothing to do with the WWII ideology. Exactly the opposite. In the time of the Buddha this word was used in general to refer to a particular group of people. YET the Buddha pointed out that the word Ariya means noble by heart and not by racial or other standards. Hence one is seriously flawed towards Buddhism when this term is used to depict a particular group of people.
      Re: the British transporting people from India to Burma and Sri Lanka: One cannot state that the Burmese came centuries ago from elsewhere, so they should also go where they came from. That is such non sense. That is 1) millennia ago and 2) it iwas amigration of people. The British transported people; those people did not go voluntarily. And when they eventually did (and let’s not forget the change in time – people viewed borders like now-a-days) they should realise they are sort of illegally doing that. So there is a ground for all the upheaval.
      On the other hand, one should practise loning kindness and compassion. Look at the deeper roots again. There must be a wholesome solution to this problem, Theravada has all the ingredients for that. Don’t let the politicians or politically motivated monks (which is against the Vinaya!) rule the country.
      Some of these problems are not so much religious, but also social.

  6. Bruce Matthews (BM), only a Canadian whose mind is poisoned by the pro LTTE Tamil Diaspora who came in their thousands by passing thier homeland in Tamilnadu in favour of wealthy greener pastures in Canada claiming persecution in Sri Lanka to hoodwink the gullible Stephen Harper’s can write such one sided highly biased clap trap (tell us how your saintly Canadian politicos in power today are treating the First nation people while using their double tongued hypocrisy to PREACH human rights and democracy they CLEARLY do NOT PRACTICE IN CANADA as evidenced by the abysmal and dispicable treatment of the FIRST NATION PEOPLE of Canada.How is it that you failed to mention acres and acres of well planned & targeted land grabbing of Buddhist temple lands by the Muslim community in Sri Lanka? You also conveniently failed to mention the mushrooming of Mosques in SL – 30,000 and increasing authorised and unauthorise Mosque building as opposed to just 10,000 Buddhist temples in a so called Buddhist country and the creeping in back door SHARIA Law in SL with the collusion of the Sri Lankan government. Just like the USA & CIA plans in Latin America in order to destabilise and control those countries by USA, why do you NOT mention such plans in Burma & Sri Lanka by the equally heinous & nasty British Colonialists in bringing Muslim and Tamil labourers from Indian and parking them quite deliberately in Sri Lanka and Myanmar for future unrest and destabilisation of these Buddhist countries. Now you are colluding with your Western governments in taking the moral high ground and appearing saintly after creating the maximum possible mess in our countries during the colonial era and the after effects are endless and will haunt many generations to come. Have you no shame, since you mischief and mayhem is still continuing and you have the audacity to make money by writing against our countries as if you haven’t done enough damage – of course you haven’t and you will carry on until you destroy many more Iraq’s – there doesn’t seem to be an end to the GREED AND EXPLOITATION of poor vulnerable countries like Sri Lanka & Burma by the Western countries in cahoots with their equally greedy Professor journalists.

    • All so true! Sponsored by muslim countries. I also heard rumors that muslims get large sums of money from those countries whenever they marry a Buddhist lady, turning that family into muslim! If all this is true this is a mediaval way of disrupting the balance in a country and instigating the opposition from those who have a mind to think.
      The article points out some good aspects but leaves out many relevant background reasons, which are unpalatable for most westerners and especially those who want to be ‘politically correct’ while at the same time being politically, socially and religiously wrong.

  7. Oh! I definitely support your point of view for it is correct 100%.
    One other thing is Opium business in Asia and in south east Asia at most.
    They brought the seeds, opium wars in China in history, now they pretend that they did not know anything and even blame to others shamelessly. Muslims in Myanmar today is just get to what they did in the past!

  8. No one is giving Myanmar Muslims any money to marry any Buddhists. You can ask the Myanmar girls who marry Myanmar Muslims.You all are dumb. It is their nature that they work hard. They have to try harder than Myanmar Buddhists, since they are discriminated in every aspect of life. Theravara Buddhism is going astray from true teachings of Lord Buddha; it is now more like worshiping Buddha statue or image and the monks. The monks are treated like Lord Buddha. No one criticize some monks for stupid things they are doing. Get some sense into your belief.

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