The Rohingya Crisis and the Politics of Buddhist Violence

Some of the most horrific news to have come out of Asia lately has been the plight of the Rohingya, Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine province who have been subjected to tremendous suffering at the hands of the government and their fellow countrymen. At least 25,000 refugees have taken to boats to attempt to escape savage repression.

The refugee crisis as much as anything has brought out into the open the ugly face of inter-religious tension – a war often fought between people who hold different faith systems, which in this case is between the Rohingya Muslims and the mainstream Buddhists of Burma.

But is it a Buddhist problem, or a problem of Buddhism as a thought system? The answer to the first question is certainly “yes,” for the people who are causing the suffering are Buddhists, therefore Buddhism is implicated. However, the answer to the second question is clearly no.

Let’s discuss it in two parts. First, there is the question of why are people shocked that Buddhists, purportedly the world’s most peaceful and non-violent religion, are attacking fellow humans. Second, the question of why some Buddhists, in this case monks in maroon robes and shaven heads, are actually acting against the tenets of their very faith.

Buddhists preach nonviolence and compassion, not only towards humans but all beings. But in recent years there has been an explosion of violence from Buddhists, not just in Myanmar. In Sri Lanka a 32-year rebellion by Tamil Hindus against the Buddhist Sinhalese government ended with the gratuitous murder of thousands of Tamils by the Rajapaksa government when the Tamil insurrection failed. In southern Thailand, the Buddhist-dominated government has been involved in a bloody 10-year campaign to suppress Muslim separatists, resulting at least 6,000 deaths.

To set the record straight, it must be said that Buddhism, like any other religion, is not new to violence and the preponderance of the Rohingya mess owes to territoriality. During the period of British colonialism, there was massive immigration from India and what is now Bangladesh, generating numerous attacks on the Hindu and Muslim minorities, and allowing Buddhist nationalism to flourish

As well, Buddhism has seen its share of bloodshed and infighting in the past, with a history full of countless examples [for instance, in the case of Tibetan Buddhists, two factions belonging to the very same lineage or schools who have often gone to war with each other, as we have seen with the current controversy over factions supporting two different Karmapa Lamas.

In several instances in the bygone past, disgruntled Tibetan monks of the famed Sera monastery have led rampages against their government in Lhasa, leaving death and devastation in their wake.

But the Rohingya crisis, unfolding in the age of Internet and social media, has clearly made it seem more immediate, dramatic and sensational. More importantly, one of the key reasons this particular tragedy is so shocking for many – if it was fundamentalists Islamists ISIS attacking monks, people would have simply viewed it as a just another day in journalism —is probably because it has turned on its very head the fashionable mainstream trope of Buddhism as a religion of peace and harmony, and by the same logic, the stereotypical image of Islam as a faith of violence and war.

Needless to say, of course, the crimes committed against the Rohingya stand as a travesty to a religion which preaches peace and non-violence. And rightly so, high-ranking Tibetan religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa Lama, have both vociferously condemned the use of violence by the Buddhists, especially the monks towards fellow human beings.

As for the real reason behind the present murderous rampage, the answer is more complicated but one aspect is, of course, the politicization of religion, in this case, carried out in the name of nationalism and national identity. More often than not, organized religions are hijacked to organize and mobilize certain groups of people against each other to achieve certain, often political ends. It is quite clear that Buddhism has been mobilized to turn the wrath of the unsympathetic state and the majority against a hapless minority whom they do not see not as a part of their own.

Salman Rushdie has often said that in this day and age we often define who we are by defining who we are not. Buddhist philosophers, ironically, are saying precisely that when they say we identify things through a “process of negation.” In other words, we know what it is by what it is not.

But the key question is what to do about it?

Secularism is clearly an answer but a very tall order. The secularism of the Indian constitution, or so-called Nehruvian-secularism, is a groundbreaking concept, an idea upon which largely rests a sometimes precarious peace among people holding different belief systems. Often taken to mean as a rejection or an aversion of religion, secularism actually means equality and non-discrimination, and respect, for all believers, including those who believe in non-believing: the atheists and the agnostics and others, if there are any. [“Indian secularism”, as the Dalai Lama often calls it, and of which he has become its staunchest advocate and ambassador.]

Buddhist philosophy, like many other religions, has in itself the keys to a world of tolerance and acceptance, however odd it might sound to point this against the backdrop of violence meted against fellow humans in the name of that very religion. As the philosopher of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism at Singapore’s National University, Jay Garfield has argued eloquently in a recent article how Buddhism’s central pre-occupation of morally sound ways of perceiving is the starting point of conceiving a fairer world.

As Garfield observes: “A Buddhist moral psychology shows us just how and why our moral lives begin with perception, and Buddhist meditative practices provide an avenue to eradicate the vices of perception and to encourage more virtuous ways of seeing the world.”

Buddhism is a movement against generalization, for its adherents see every situation as unique, and offer ways of eliminating biases, both conscious and unconscious. And a genuine Buddhist teacher would say that this non-judgmental, non-conceptual way of looking at the world, if carried out properly, can give rise to a tremendous well of compassion, and even promise a passage to enlightenment.

That might sound idealistic but the present crisis provides an excellent practice in Buddhist philosophy by helping point precisely towards the danger of preconceived notions of Buddhism's own idea of peacefulness. It is quite surprising indeed to see the myth of docile and meditating monks being shattered by the images of monks slaughtering women and children.

The author has written two books on Buddhism and modernity. He prefers not to be named.