An article appeared last week exploring the issue of Islamophobia in Burmese Buddhism. Burma’s Time Bomb by Kyaw Zwa Moe describes a suspicion that the Burmese government manipulates religious prejudice for its own purposes. For example, during democratic uprisings religious hatred may be used to divert attention from protests and to promote support for the military. He continues that:
A couple of days ago, a friend sent me a Burmese-language book with a shocking title: “If You Marry a Man of Another Evil Race and Religion.” The book is believed to have been written by a Buddhist monk under the pen name Pho Pa Nyaw, and it was published with permission from the Religious Affairs Ministry in January 2010, back when no book could be printed and distributed without government approval. It includes 11 stories about Buddhist women who were sexually abused, raped or forced to marry members of another “evil” religion.”
After reading some of the stories, I am convinced that the book was intended to plant seeds of hatred against Islam among the country’s Buddhist majority, although the author never specifically referred to Muslims. One story was about a Buddhist woman named Su Su Lat. She married a man of another faith, and her husband and his family prohibited her from worshipping the Buddha. In 2000, when they discovered that she was continuing to practice Buddhism, they beat her to death. The entire family was later arrested and sentenced to life in prison. Similar outcomes were described in the other stories, with the Buddhists always referred to as victims.
Two things are striking. First, the book is purported to be written by a Buddhist monk. Second, its publication was supported by the Religious Affairs Ministry. The book follows a long tradition and, as noted in the article, has its infamous predecessor in U Kyaw Lwin’s ‘969’ published as far back as 1997. As Kyaw Zwa Moe comments about the former book:
This book seems to be based solely upon hearsay, lacking detailed references to places, names or specific incidents. But even if the stories are true, I wonder why the Religious Affairs Ministry approved their publication. The writing is racist and provocative, and assuming that government officials actually read it themselves, they must have known it would stir up tension.
There is a common theme here and one which could explain the Islamophobic Buddhist rhetoric that seems to many observers to be so contrary to the teachings of Buddhism. Does the Burmese military use discrimination and prejudice against Islam as a means to divide the population and give the army a reason for its continued governance? If the country is under threat from a supposed Islamic enemy then the army, as always in recent Burmese history must be in control to defend ‘nationality, race and religion’ (ma-ba-tha)
As As Kyaw Zwa Moe concludes:
I wonder whether the book my friend sent me recently contributed to our country’s current religious tensions. But the real question is, why did the government give its blessing? Is it state policy to encourage religious tension?
As my friend told me, “Religion is used as a time bomb here, all the time.”
Another article Buddhist vigilantes in Myanmar are sparking riots with wild rumors of Muslim sex predators considers similar themes:
The specter of rapacious Muslim men, plotting a slow genocide of Buddhists through sexual conquest, is actually quite old in Myanmar. A 1938 newspaper article, translated by The Journal of Burma Studies, offers a stern warning to Buddhist ladies who marry Muslims brought over by British colonizers: “You Burmese women who fail to safeguard your own race … are responsible for the ruination of the race.”