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.