An Open Letter to Ma Ba Tha

By Benedict Rogers 12 August 2015

Dear Respected and Venerable Monks,

I have recently returned from an eight-day silent retreat in north Wales. For eight days I was focused entirely on meditation, contemplation and prayer, inspired by the spirituality of a 16th century Spaniard, St Ignatius of Loyola. Father James Martin, a leading expert on Ignatian spirituality, writes: “The way of Ignatius is about finding freedom: the freedom to become the person you’re meant to be, to love and accept love, to make good decisions, and to experience the beauty of creation and the mystery of God’s love.”

The retreat was at a Jesuit retreat center, and was based on Catholic theology, but in my silent prayer and meditation I reflected on the similarities between my faith and Buddhism. Both religions have monastic traditions; both have a spirituality based on prayer, meditation and silence; and candles, incense and water all have a very significant and symbolic place in our religious practice. I noted with great interest that last year and this year, Thingyan—the Water Festival—occurred around the same time as Easter.

For you, water symbolizes washing away your sins of the past year and starting afresh; for Christians, the water of baptism symbolizes the same, and when Catholics enter or leave a church, we dip our finger into holy water and make the sign of the cross, renewing our baptismal vows. Most importantly, both our faiths emphasize peace, love, compassion and beauty. Your principles of Metta and Karuna —loving kindness and compassion—for all living beings are very similar to our principles of loving our neighbors as ourselves, and loving our enemy.

It is therefore surprising to me that a religion based on such beautiful principles and traditions can have allowed faith to be confused with race, nationalism and politics, resulting in an unholy and lethal cocktail of hatred, discrimination, dehumanization and violence. I am no expert on Buddhism, and readily admit that I have much to learn. There are also many things I do not understand about Burma, even though I have been closely involved with your beautiful country for almost twenty years.

So it is for that reason, and with that spirit of humility, that I write to you to ask you to explain. How can adherents of a religion, or a philosophy, that teaches loving kindness and compassion for all living beings be people who preach hatred, distribute literature inciting violence, block aid to victims of natural disaster, lobby for laws that restrict and discriminate basic human freedoms and threaten or actually carry out acts of violence? How are the teachings of Buddhism and the actions of many members and followers of Ma Ba Tha compatible and reconcilable?

I have traveled many times in your country, and worked with a number of Buddhist monks whom I deeply respect and love. The monks I know are monks who truly live their Buddhist precepts. Many Buddhist monks and lay people have courageously sacrificed their lives for your country in the course of its recent history. I love your country and your people, whatever religion or race they come from. It is for these reasons that I grieve every time I hear of a sermon preaching hatred or inciting violence, a death threat sent by a Buddhist to a Muslim, or any other act that is so blatantly contrary to Metta and Karuna. Such actions are not only causing great fear and suffering for others, but they threaten harmony and stability in Burma and seriously damage the reputation of Buddhism. No one benefits and, in the long run, everyone loses with such an agenda.

I understand some of your concerns. I share your concern about the rise of radical Islamism around the world, and am actively engaged in working to counter it. I have seen its effects firsthand. One of my closest friends—Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s federal minister for minorities—was assassinated by Islamic extremists four years ago. I have stood outside a church in Indonesia, surrounded by a threatening mob of extremists. I have missed a bomb by five minutes in Islamabad, and seen the rise of religious extremism in the Maldives. In my own country, we have a major problem with radical Islamism, and it is one I have written about and spoken out on. No one could be more aware of, or more opposed to, radical Islamism.

However, we must distinguish between radical Islamism—an ideology that represents only one strand of Islam—and the vast majority of ordinary Muslim people, who want nothing to do with such an agenda. We must also recognize that Islam as a religion is open to a wide variety of interpretations, and that many Muslims interpret their faith entirely peacefully and with no threat to others.

I work very closely with members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Indonesia, a sect severely persecuted by other Muslims. Their adherence to a peaceful, pluralistic, open-minded expression of their faith is exemplary. Their motto is “love for all, hatred for none”. Similarly, the family of the former President of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, actively work to continue his legacy of fighting intolerance and extremism, through the Wahid Institute, whilst remaining practising Sunni Muslims. Former President Wahid was a tremendous champion of persecuted religious minorities in Indonesia, and at the same time a very respected Islamic cleric and scholar and leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim community organization in the world. In Britain, I remain in close contact with the Quilliam Foundation, an organization set up by former Islamists who completely changed their thinking and now work to counter extremism and promote peaceful, pluralistic interpretations of Islam.

We cannot blame Muslims in Burma for the actions of radical Islamists in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Pakistan or Indonesia. It makes no sense, and is morally wrong. My experience of Muslims in Burma is that, in general, they want to integrate with wider Burmese society, and live as equal and responsible citizens in the country. There is no sign of radical Islamism taking root in Myanmar. My fear, however, is that by marginalizing, persecuting and dehumanizing Muslims, you will attract the attention of the very thing you claim to wish to prevent and that outside radical Islamist organizations who had previously never considered Burma as a recruiting ground may respond to your intolerance in a way that could be dangerous for everyone.

I have read some texts from the Lord Buddha’s teachings, and I find his principles beautiful. If every Buddhist followed the Lord Buddha’s teachings, Burma would be in harmony. It is my understanding that the Lord Buddha teaches “right speech”, and outlines the “four means of embracing others” and the “five ways of removing resentment”. He also sets out the “four immeasurables” or “four divine abodes”: loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy and equanimity. The Lord Buddha sets out the importance of understanding what is “wholesome” and what is “unwholesome”. These are beautiful and inspiring principles for life—but it would seem they directly contradict the preaching or inciting of hatred or violence. How do you reconcile the Lord Buddha’s beautiful teaching with what some of your representatives preach?

I therefore appeal to you to reconsider your approach; to reflect on the values that you preach as Buddhists; and to recognize that the fear of radical Islamism and respect for the dignity and rights of ordinary Muslims as human beings are two entirely different, and entirely compatible, beliefs. Repressing Muslims and other minorities in Burma is not going to prevent radical Islamism, it is going to attract it, and it does Burma and Buddhism no favors at all.

On my retreat I returned renewed with a deep desire for peace. A prayer I read while on retreat gives a very simple message: “Peace in my heart, peace in this place, peace in our land and throughout the world peace.” That is my prayer for you, for all your followers, and for Burma.

St Ignatius of Loyola said: “Love is shown more in deeds than in words.”

With profound respect for your religion, deep love for your country, and hopes that Ma Ba Tha can rediscover Metta and Karuna for all, in your actions as well as your words.

Benedict Rogers is the East Asia Team Leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide and author of Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads.