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The increased bloodshed between Buddhists and Muslims now unfolding in Burma / Myanmar is a conflict rooted in religious hatred.
Fighting between Buddhists and Muslims has been ongoing in western Burma for decades. The current flareup of "communal violence", however, threatens to disrupt Burma's delicate transition towards democracy. Myanmar's awakening is thus at risk of being snuffed out by extremism from both Buddhist and Muslim camps.
On 20 March 2013, in the central Burmese city of Meiktila, there was a nasty argument in a gold shop between the Muslim shopkeepers and Buddhist patrons. The argument escalated and widened into mob violence, resulting in the killing of a Buddhist monk. Over the next two days, enraged Buddhists killed at least 40 Muslims, and razed about 1,500 Muslim homes, creating a refugee crisis.
According to multiple reports, Buddhist monks participated in the violence, and Burmese security forces did nothing to stop it. Not only was this the worst bout of violence between Burmese Buddhists and Muslims in a year, but the incident in Meiktila sparked more widespread violence throughout the country, thereby destabilizing a nation already overshadowed by permanent fears of another military coup.
Burma has long been a realm dominated by Theravada Buddhism, which is also prominent in nearby countries like Sri Lanka and Thailand. And like those other countries -- Burma has long been a stage for Muslim and Buddhist violence.
The locus of the Muslim-Buddhist rivalry lies in Rakhine State, which hugs Burma's west coast along the Bay of Bengal. Rakhine State is populated with nearly 4 million people, the majority being ethnic Rakhine. The Rakhine People, early adopters of Buddhism, have roots in the region going back thousands of years, and had a series of kingdoms that were independent and distinct from the ethnic Burmese majority in Myanmar.
The largest minority group in Rakhine State are a Muslim people called the Rohingya. The Rohingya's ethnic roots can be traced back to neighboring Bangladesh, and indeed Rohingya are often labeled by Burmese with the derogatory ethnic slur of "kalar", which means "Indians".
Rohingya roots in Rakhine State also go back into time immemorial, yet they were never accepted as citizens by the successive Burmese regimes. In 1982, the Burmese government officially declared the Rohingya to be "non national" and "foreign residents". As a "stateless" people, neither Burmese nor Bangladeshi, the Rohingya are often at the mercy of discriminatory policies by the Burmese government such as population controls restricting Rohingya families to only two children.
In 2012, the world was taken aback when riots broke out between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State. Those riots led to the deaths of at least 110 people and the displacement of 100,000. Most of the victims in these cases were Muslims.
Since then, there has arisen a pro-Buddhist movement which claims that the Muslim presence in Myanmar is a menace. This movement, called "969", fuses Buddhist ideology and Burmese nationalism. Its leading spokesperson is a monk named Wirathu (often called the "Burmese Bin Laden" by the press). Wirathu is an ex-convict who was imprisoned for nine years in 2003 for fomenting deadly religious incitement against Muslims. He was pardoned recently and now makes frequent anti-Muslim lectures that can be seen on YouTube.
Unlike Bin Laden, however, Wirathu is not exactly issuing deadly fatwas against Muslims. In fact he sometimes makes public statements condemning mob violence against Muslims when they occur. However, Wirathu does encourage economic, sexual, and racial apartheid between Muslims and Buddhists in Burma, and is widely blamed for helping to incite the current mob violence against Muslims in Myanmar.
His brand, "969", comes in the form of stickers that shopkeepers and ordinary citizens can put on their stores, vehicles, or homes to mark themselves as Buddhists, effectively boycotting Muslim business.
Wirathu and like-minded monks teach that Muslims are slowly taking over Burma from within - not only economically but also religiously. According to this theory, the Rohingya and other Muslims within Burma are extensions of a global Islamic force that threatens to destroy the country's native Buddhism, and therefore must be stopped.
Myanmar has changed drastically since 2007, when the Buddhist monks were being hailed around the world for standing up to the military dictatorship. At the time, it did indeed seem that the Buddhist religious establishment in Burma (the Sangha) was a subversive force for good. Today, however, the sangha appears instead to be colluding with the government in encouraging discriminatory policies and even violence against the Muslim minorities.
The indifference towards human suffering (and indeed, participation in violence) by Buddhist monks in Burma should serve as a rude awakening to Western observers. The Burmese Sangha is wedded to the government of Myanmar. There is little separation of church and state here. As long as this political-religious marriage continues in current form, there will be more of what we have already seen: Buddhist mobs attacking Muslim minorities while security forces stand by and do nothing - or worse, help the mobs.
Buddhists in Burma do indeed have some reason to be afraid of Muslim expansionism. Segments of the Rohingya population in Rakhine have been recruited and radicalized by global terror organizations. Islamic ideology in general perceives Buddhism as a form of paganism and therefore a legitimate target for destruction. It is therefore tempting, perhaps, to support the Buddhist nationalist movement in Burma.
But two wrongs don't necessarily make a right.
The 969 Movement is merely a reflection of the Islamic extremism that it fears so much. By giving direct or indirect justification to Buddhist violence against Muslims -- the 969 only destabilizes the country at a time when it needs stability the most. Should the inter-religious violence reach a certain threshold, it will invite the military powers to intercede and retake power. That would surely end the country's democratic transition and sabotage its economic promise.
Perhaps that is exactly what the Sangha wants - a return to military rule. Could it be that what the monks fear most of all is an open, secular society like Thailand where the religion's grip on the people ever wanes?
For Western companies like Starbucks and Microsoft, who are now moving assets into Burma, ongoing violence between Muslims and Buddhists poses a considerable threat. And not only from the unlikely possibility of a Buddhist attack on Western facilities. Rather, there is the spectre of Islamic jihadists carrying out reprisal attacks against Burmese infrastructure, to avenge the killing of Rohingya and other Muslims.
Indeed, a plot to attack the Burmese embassy in Jakarta using chemical weapons was recently disrupted, an indication that the Buddhist nationalistic trend in Burma is already triggering unforeseen, negative consequences in the wider region.
Buddhism teaches that life is suffering, and the root of human suffering is desire. By eliminating desire, Buddhism teaches that we can eliminate suffering at the same time. Yet that philosophy is fundamentally flawed because it is passion and the desire to embrace new life that is the heart of human empathy.
In any case, the Burmese Sangha betrays its own teaching by passionately participating in the frenzied orgy of destruction and hatred against its perceived enemies. What is needed is more desire among Burmese Buddhists (for healing wounds and uniting the country before the 2015 elections), not less.
Nothing less than their collective future and identity hangs in the balance.