Thursday, April 4, 2013

The 'Burmese Bin Laden' and the emptiness of labels

The situation in Burma -- where Buddhist monks are accused of inciting violence against ethnic Muslims that has killed 43 people, destroyed or damaged 992 buildings, including five mosques, and displaced 12,000 people in a town of 100,000 -- is heartbreaking, not just because of the suffering but because it is perpetrated by Buddhists.

Hatred never defeats hatred, the Buddha said. Only love overcomes hate.

For those of us who study Buddhism, it's mind-boggling that practitioners -- who take the precepts to refrain from killing, to not take what is not freely offered, to not use harsh speech -- would be involved in this:

Yangon, Myanmar (CNN) -- Buddhist monks and others armed with swords and machetes Friday stalked the streets of a city in central Myanmar, where sectarian violence that has left about 20 people dead has begun to spread to other areas, according to local officials. (Read more here)

The Buddha was clear:

Whoever, with a rod, harasses an innocent man, unarmed, quickly falls into any of ten things: harsh pains, devastation, a broken body, grave illness, mental derangement, trouble with the government, violent slander, relatives lost, property dissolved, houses burned down. At the break-up of the body this one with no disconcernment, reappears in hell.
- Dhammapada, 137-140

Time reported Tuesday that sources say Muslims are terrified to go out after dark and are not able to visit the town’s market to trade or collect supplies. The report goes on to say that monks have "unparalleled moral authority in traditional Burmese society." Various news reports say the unrest has been spurred by Ven. Wirathu, an outspoken monk who was jailed in 2003 for inciting religious clashes in the northern city of Mandalay. He's called himself “the Burmese bin Laden” in reference to the jihadi leader Osama bin Laden’s religious fervor, despite his hatred of all things Islamic, and is the leader of a movement known as 969. The 45-year-old posted an inflammatory speech online last week that warned “once these evil Muslims have control and authority over us, they will not let us practice our religion” and accused Muslims of accumulating “money to get our young Buddhist women.”

None of this is consistent with any Buddhist teachings that I've learned about. How is it possible that a Buddhist monk could lead a deadly campaign of hatred? How is it possible that Buddhists would follow him?

An opinion piece in the Irrawaddy, a news site that covers southeast Asia, says:

To the campaigners, 969 is about protecting race and religion by peaceful means. In practice, it is explicitly an anti-Muslim campaign, not about preaching people the Buddha-nature of all beings, as taught and practiced by Lord Buddha himself. In many townships across Burma, including capital regions, there are local 969 committees that organize events and religious sermons and distribute anti-Muslim materials such as CDs, books and leaflets.
The 969 campaign targets economic aspects by alleging that Muslims are dominating the Burmese economy, and that therefore Buddhists must not trade with Muslims. Instead, the campaigners recommend that Buddhists buy and sell at Buddhist shops that display 969 signs and stickers. In Karen State, Buddhists are even forced to trade only with Buddhists. There are local reports about Buddhists being beaten by members of 969 civilians and monks for trading with Muslims.

Obviously there are political and socio-economic aspects that I don't know. Burma, or Mayamar, is in the process of emerging from years of military rule. I know that I don't know the nuances of the situation. But I do know that this is not what Buddhism teaches.

Psychologist Jeffrey Rubin wrote a post on the Interdependence Project blog about how sex scandals involving Buddhist teachers develop. Maybe this is similar, just on a larger societal scale. A deluded person who stops seeing his lust for power, a population that wants to be handed a way out.

ETA: Meanwhile The Saffron Monk Network issued a statement warning the public not to take part in any violent events following the riots between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Meikhtila town last week. Ashin Awbartha (Nagar) from Shwewayoung Pyinyardana monastery, a member of the Saffron Monk Network, told Karen News that the intention is to to keep innocent people out of riots like those that happened in Meikhtila.
The Saffron Monk Network’s statement said that it is sad to see religion and ethnic based issues used to stimulate and create conflicts. The statement also warned that the violence could set back the country and lead to loss of support from the international community.

To read more:

Burmese Neo-Nazi Movement Rising Against Muslims

Burmese Monk fomenting violence against Muslims

Saffron monks stalk streets with machetes

Burmese Bin Laden: Is Buddhist Monk Behind Violence in Myanmar?

Another CNN story:

Burma's monks calls for Muslims to be shunned

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