Anti-Muslim Monks

A lot of people ask me about reports of anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar, since I live at a Burmese monastery and they assume I might have special inside knowledge. With the appearance of a new cover story in Time magazine on this topic, let me say here what I can figure out about this.

As far as I can see the coverage in the Western press has been worse than deplorable, and at the same time violent incidents are real as is anti-Muslim sentiment in much of the Buddhist population of Myanmar. The involvement of Burmese monks is very small, yet it also does exist.

First, it is important to keep in mind that the phrases Buddhist extremist and Buddhist fundamentalist are meaningless in this context. Any expression of hatred for a group of people is simply unBuddhist. The Buddha never endorsed hatred or violence under any circumstances, ever, even in self-defense. He never condemned other faiths. There is simply nothing in Buddhism, even with the most assiduous cherry-picking, that one could be fundamentalist or extreme about and produce a justification for violence. The violence is entirely in spite of Buddhism, not because of it. Still, we are not all perfect Buddhists.

The social roots of the violence are complex. Many Burmese express surprise that the recent violence has erupted, since “Buddhists and Muslims have lived peacefully together for many years,” to quote an ethnic Mon monk I was talking to about this just today. Still I have heard derogatory comments about Muslims among Burmese since before the present violence. There are differences in the value systems of Islam and Buddhism which may are bound to make some people judgmental. For instance, Buddhists are protective of animal life so most butchers in Myanmar are Muslims. Buddhists purchase meat from the butchers, then look down on them for killing the meat.

Most of the violence has centered in Rakhain State directed against Rohingya Muslims who have immigrated from Bangladesh starting under British rule. It is hard to sort out the dynamics of this conflict, but it seems to involve immigration policy and competition for land resources in an already extremely poor population, particularly as more Rohingyas have entered Burma due to flooding in Bangladesh. It does not help that there are reports of oppression against the Buddhist minority on the Bangladeshi side of the border. Myanmar was marked by ethnic violence primarily as minorities have taken up arms against a brutal regime. Myanmar is also in a period of transition toward a more open society after years of brutal military rule. Many countries that have experienced such a transition seem to experience an abrupt bubbling up of long suppressed tensions. Yugoslavia is an example from the 90’s. In Rakhain State we find violence on both sides, generally following an old pattern of tit-for-tat, exaggerated by rumor, escalating until the majority party does something extreme.

The Western press has tended simply to ignore the social causes and attribute violence directly to Buddhist hatred of Muslims. I see this in story after story. When monks are brought into the stories it is almost always as instigators of violence. When the government is brought into the stories it is almost always as an indifferent or biased party. Rarely covered are the efforts of monks and the government to mitigate the violence or to protect the Muslim population from violence. This is more than inaccurate reporting; it contributes directly to the ignorance and rumors that lead to further violence, implicating the press itself in the violence in the next-to-worst way.

Of course any contribution of monks to hatred or violence is particularly disturbing, to Buddhists around the world, and to me personally as a monk ordained in the Burmese tradition. I know many Burmese monks, a few of which have sometimes to my alarm expressed anti-Muslim sentiments. However I have never heard one endorse violence in any way; consistently they deplore the violence, and many deplore anti-Muslim sentiment as well.

The Western press focuses repeatedly on this same monk, Ashin Wirathu, who appears on the new cover of Time magazine as the “face of Buddhist terror.” However I have never found in the Western stories anywhere where Ashin Wirathu has directly advocated violence against Muslims (let me know if you know of such a quote), rather his agenda seems to be a peaceful economic boycott against Muslim businesses. His rhetoric is clearly hateful, and he is reported for reasons I cannot make any logical sense of to call himself a Buddhist Osama bin Laden. But I don’t think this qualifies as terrorism. Incidentally, if a monk advocates an act of killing and thereby causes someone else to carry out that act, that monk has thereby just disrobed, according to the ancient monastic code. Ashin Wirathu certainly knows this.

I would like to highlight my own preceptor, Sitagu Sayadaw, as a more moderate, typical and influential monastic voice in Myanmar than Ashin Wirathu.  I have never seen Sitagu Sayadaw mentioned in the Western press with regard to this issue in spite of his eminence. The following are links to a press release that he issued concerning the violence, in somewhat imperfect English, and a story from the South China Morning Post in which he is quoted at the end of a story that gives voice to other sensible monks as well.

Communal Violence Condemned by Sitagu Sayadaw

Myanmar Monks Say Most Oppose Anti-Muslim Campaign

As Buddhists our primary task is the perfection of human character. We become mindful of every intention and seek to address any tendency toward greed, hatred or delusion. Except for the rare arahant, we fall short of the aspiration, but we keep trying in a very complex and ensnarling world. Part of this task is the perfection of kindness, at which point it shines on all without bias, even on those who might wish us harm.

13 Responses to “Anti-Muslim Monks”

  1. josesiem Says:

    The press feels guilty about reporting on Muslim violence, so they feel better about making the poor Muslims the object of “Buddhist” violence. It coincides with their underlying belief that all religions are the same and that one religion is no more or less violent than another, which is ridiculous to anyone who’s anything about the world’s sacred texts.

    The western media has been abysmal in reporting everything lately. Thank you for shedding some light on this topic.


  2. S Harris Says:

    Thank you. That was a helpful comment on the situation in Myanmar. I hope the journalists see it. I imagine that most of them are doing the best they can and would be open to the idea of another perspective.


  3. Kitty Johnson Says:

    Thanks for your insightful and informative take on this issue. It’s hard for those of us without your background to really know what it’s all about and what’s behind it. I do know not to trust what I read in the media about much of anything, but it’s good to hear the facts from someone I trust.


  4. Visakha Says:

    Please read

    Monks Rally Behind Bill That Would Restrict Interfaith Marriage
    By LAWI WENG / THE IRRAWADDY| Friday, June 28, 2013 |

    which includes the following:

    “U Wimala Buddhi, a monk from the Mon State capital Moulmein, warned that the clergymen would discourage voters from supporting any parliamentarian who does not back the law. “I want to know who will oppose our law, which political parties,” he said during a speech.

    U Nyanissara, one of the most respected Buddhist monks in Burma, urged the monks to unite against supposed external forces, although he stopped short of endorsing the controversial bill.

    “To protect our race and religion, we should speak with one voice,” he said in a speech, “The government also has an important role to play.”

    On Thursday, U Nyanissara also spoke out against Time’s cover and appeared to defend U Wirathu.

    “They say the Buddhist religion is carrying out genocide, but we did nothing, not even expand our population,” he said. “Ashin Wirathu is a person who shows tolerance when someone criticizes him.”

    U Nyanissara, a highly revered monk in Burma, urged the gathered clergymen to unite and stay calm in the face of such outside criticism, saying, “Our Buddhist clergy here is as strong as the Burmese army; we have 500,000 monks.” The Burmese military has some 400,000 troops.

    And of course —

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 16 states that “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.”


  5. findouting Says:

    Dear Bhante,

    I would think there are deep rooted economic and environmental pressures at work behind such violence. I am currently reading Helena Norberg Hodge’s book Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, which documents in great detail how the Ladhakhi civilisation, stabilised for over more than a thousand years by deep Buddhist practice and environmental wisdom, broke apart rapidly over less than two decades since the advent of globalisation forces that brought in, along with ‘development’, all its associated evils. Sudden and unexpected rise in hostility between Buddhist and Muslim communities which had lived in peace for centuries before, was one of the important fallouts, along with drop in the status of women, shattering of old family and social relationships and a general rise in insecurity in society.

    What you say is happening in the press is what typically happens in these circumstances — press hardly ever bothers to look deeply enough, especially in the heat of the moment, and reports according to its own motivations — mostly sensationalism — rather than in accordance with the truth. Also, media houses are owned by powerful people with very deep and insidious vested interests that are not easy to grasp.

    I think it would be of great use if someone could look into the situation in some depth, taking in history as well as socio-economic changes, but I guess that will take time….



  6. Brian Farley Says:

    Bhante, thank you for a balanced perspective on the issue. The media often reduce very complex matters into delusional bite-size chunks for the sake of sensationalism and sales. Better to take it all with a grain of salt. Our valuable time in this life is better spent developing our minds so that we can respond to all of this human suffering as opposed to reacting to it. May the Triple Gem Bless you all.


  7. Mahendra Says:

    Dear Bhante,

    Thank you for a very balanced article on this highly controversial topic. I was in Myanmar when the violence erupted in March and April of this year. I didn’t see any hatred towards Muslims in the largely Buddhist population or outbreaks of violence as I traveled thru Myanmar for 3 months.

    IMO, there is a difference in (1) protecting your culture and heritage by urging not to convert, to marry another co-religionist, to maintain your religion, etc. and (2) advocating violence and mayhem. Clearly (2) is not what a Buddhist can or should do and is as far away from Lord Buddha’s teachings as is black from white. However, a buddhist can and should protect his values and religion. A prominent example of this would be Dharmapala from Sri Lanka who urged the same things. Instead of all this hate-mongering, what is needed is a humanitarian approach to helping the population economically in their times of need. May all beings be happy and peaceful.


  8. Kevin Says:

    This is somewhat off topic. I am sad when I read about any fighting over any religion. This book was one of the first I read on the topic of Tibet. I admire the monks who fought in Burma for freedom. . There is a Middle way. It is not as black and white as we think. Thank you sir again for your knowledge. I hope to see you soon.

    Buddha’s Warriors: The Story of the CIA-Backed Tibetan Freedom Fighters, the Chinese Communist Invasion, and the Ultimate Fall of Tibet


  9. Joan Says:

    Thanks Bhante, for this thoughtful response. I was one of the inquirees. Just posted it on my Facebook page.


  10. bhikkhucintita Says:

    Here is a new story concerning a sangha meeting convened by Sitagu Sayadaw to help end the violence in Myanmar.,11509,0,0,1,0#.Udc_AeHtOoE


  11. Visakha Says:

    Who’s protecting what culture?

    Monks and misogyny

    Published: 1 July 2013

    ”Our Buddhist women are not intelligent enough to protect themselves,” a religious leader declared last week in defence of a controversial law that would effectively ban interfaith marriages in Burma.

    The draft law, which garnered the support of an all-male convention of 1,500 senior monks in Rangoon on Thursday, has exposed a poisonous mix of structural racism and misogyny at the heart of Theravada Buddhism in Burma.

    The legislation, if passed, would require Buddhist women to obtain permission from both her family and local authorities before marrying a man of a different faith. This provision was originally targeted exclusively at Muslim men, but later revised in a bid to be “more balanced”. This “balance” of course only sought to redress its distinctly anti-Muslim agenda, rather than the inherent sexism that underpins it.

    In part, this reflects a dogmatic and patriarchal interpretation of Theravada Buddhism in Burma that seems to indoctrinate the subordination of women. Nuns – who were notably absent from last week’s convention – make up roughly one in six of the Buddhist clergy in Burma. But they are not afforded the same virtues as their male counterparts and it is widely believed that women cannot attain enlightenment. Women are subsequently banned from visiting the “holiest” parts of religious monuments.

    Nuns cannot be fully ordained, because the ceremony requires at least five other fully ordained nuns to complete, and this community of women – known as the Bhikkhuni Sangha in Theravada Buddhism — died out centuries ago. Despite attempts to resuscitate the practice in other Theravada countries by using fully ordained nuns from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition to perform the rituals, it has been met with hostility in most conservative circles and is not recognised in Burma.

    This means that nuns are formally excluded from the Burmese Sangha – or monastic community – and are not allowed to deliver sermons or participate in high-level religious debates. In 2005, a nun was arrested and jailed by the military junta for returning to Burma after becoming fully “ordained” in Sri Lanka.

    After being forced to “unconditionally” apologise for her actions, she was promptly deported back to Sri Lanka. In her evocative account of life as a nun in Burma, she recalls being forced to bow down to novice monks as young as five, even if they had been “in robes for less than a day”. In other words, Burmese nuns are considered spiritually and intellectually inferior to monks of any age, experience or education.
    “Patriarchal structures are endemic throughout Burma’s states and provinces.”

    In the context of the Sangha — which carries enormous moral and political weight in Burmese society – it means that women’s voices are marginalised, if not completely ignored. Monks are less likely to take an interest in social issues that affect women, such as sexual and reproductive rights or marital autonomy. Conversely, both the state-backed Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee and prominent supporters of the 2007 anti-government “Saffron Revolution” have played an increasingly vocal role in supporting the interfaith marriage ban.

    It is perhaps unsurprising, albeit ironic, that both the Burmese military and the monkhood – two male-dominated and deeply hierarchical institutions – would embrace a shared platform for misogyny. In fact, when monks claim to be “protecting” Buddhist women from their own choices, it reeks eerily of the same condescending paternalism and machismo employed by the military regime to keep the pro-democracy movement in check.

    There is an ongoing scholarly debate about whether Theravada Buddhism is intrinsically sexist or has come to internalise a wider culture of gender bias. In many ways this echoes the same parochial and myopic arguments that have contaminated western political discourse for many years – whether it’s a question of same-sex marriage, access to safe abortion or the ordination of female bishops.

    But certainly the draft law highlights the social, political and cultural ostracism of women in Burma, entrenched by nearly five decades of military rule. Burma is one of only two ASEAN countries, where domestic violence is still legal – despite having one of the highest recorded rates in the region. Marital rape is not considered a crime; while abortion is illegal in all circumstances except to save a woman’s life and botched procedures are a leading contributor to Burma’s cataclysmic maternal death rate.

    Despite some commendable efforts by Aung San Suu Kyi to include more women in the 2012 by-elections, they still hold a tiny 5.7 percent of seats in the lower house of parliament, and an abysmal 1.8 percent in the upper house. (This should worry anyone, who fears the draft law might live to see the fluorescent lights of parliament.) Section 352 of the 2008 constitution even sanctions professional discrimination on the basis of gender as long as it is for “positions that are suitable for men only”.

    Decades of brutal civil wars have taught Burma’s armed forces to rape and pillage with impunity. This violence, targeting Christians, Muslims and Buddhists alike, has sent a clear message that women’s bodies are collateral damage, if not instruments of war. The ethnic peace processes have been equally marred by a systematic exclusion of female voices – an absence which risks fuelling further gender based violence down the road.

    Indeed patriarchal structures are endemic throughout Burma’s states and provinces. The Lokaniti or “Guide to Life”, a 14th century Burmese text, which outlines a woman’s role as domesticated and servile, still carries significant influence among its majority Buddhist population. Luckily, it has not stopped women from speaking out against the monks’ proposal.

    But the support it has garnered from the monkhood, and the reluctance of a male-dominated Buddhist government to condemn it, remains deeply troubling. It certainly illustrates the need for a strong, organised and vocal feminist movement that cuts across Burma’s religious and secular spheres. In the meanwhile, anyone threatening to strip votes from politicians who oppose the ban would do well to remember that 50.3% of Burma’s electorate are women.


  12. AMIK Says:

    Nice thoughtful article. There are couple of issues that is, nevertheless, going on in the back of my mind. First, the fact that western press are reporting violent monks spearheading the attacks and leading mobsters along with pictures tells that there is something abnormal with Burmese Buddhist practice. These violent monks may not be the majority but the fact that they are there and were able to cause so much havoc without significant resistance from true Buddhist monks is a big problem. I still wonder who commands most influence on Burmese society! The spiritual peaceful genuine Buddhist monks or the hateful violent racist monks? Apparently it is the latter group and that is what is the message the western media is apparently delivering.

    Even if Ashin Wirathu is not directly advocating violence, he knows very well that he is promoting hate by his hate speech and this hate can lead to violence and murder. So he is fully responsible for the ultimate consequences of his action and there is no reason to call him non-violent. He is acting smart to get the dirty job done by someone through instigation.

    As for Rohingyas, I tend to agree that a lot of it may have to do with resource sharing but the Rohingyas are not recent Bangladeshi immigrants. These people have been living there for centuries. Rohingyas live near and along Burma-Bangladesh border and this area have been historically cross populated by both the Rakhines and Rohingyas for centuries. When the border was drawn, some Rohingya’s fell on the other side in Burma and some Rakhines also fell on the Bangladesh side. ‘Rohingya’ literally means ‘People of Rohang’ and the Arakan (Rakhain) state of Burma and neighboring areas had been historically known as ‘Rohang’ to the Rohingyas and in greater Chittagong district in Bangladesh. The Rohingya people who are ethnically related to Bengalis but with a distinct language had been there since as far back as the 16th century. It is true that many Bengalis eventually migrated to Burma during British rule. Most of them have since returned but some of them probably intermarried and settled among the Rohingyas. But then, migration is human history and there was no immigration or visa system in those days. So you cannot and do not call them illegal. Period.

    It is ridiculous to suggest that more and more Bengali people migrated to Arakan during flood in Bangladesh and caused this tension. Grater Chittagong area of Bangladesh which borders Burma and extends well over several hundred miles from the border is a highland and have never seen flood. This is just another attempt of distorting the Rohingya issue to deny their legitimate rights. Most interestingly, since 1970s, the Burmese regime have been repeatedly forcing the Rohingyas out of the country and pushing them across the border. Why would once think that a sensible Bengali will leave everything behind to enter in a foreign land to face persecution, torture and potential death or push back across the border?


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