Preaching by the 969 and Ma Ba Tha movements

The following video has recently gone viral among followers of the 969 and Ma Ba Tha movements. In Burmese the video is introduced with the following: ‘Those who haven’t been to, or haven’t heard or seen a 969 Ma Ba Tha fun preaching ceremony, say, sadhu, sadhu, sadhu.’

The music has a strong nationalistic theme. A translation of the lyrics to the song have been offered by Dr Maung Zarni, with many thanks:

 

“We will fence our nation with our bones”

Buddha’s Wisdom shines over our land
In defence of Bama race and Buddhist faith we will stand at the front line.
These people (the infidels/Muslims) live on our (Buddhist) soil.
They drink our water.
They break our rules.
They suck our wealth.
And they insult us the host.
They destroy our youth.
Alas, they are just one ungrateful, worthless creatures.

We are one Buddhist brotherhood, now joining hands as One.
We shall pledge to join hands as One.
We do pledege to join hands as One.
We will be loyal and faithful to our Race and our (Buddhist) Faith.

We will only do business with those who share our Buddhist faith.
We will only marry those who share our Buddhist faith.

Hey, shall we
talk about our national affairs.
Let our nationalist consciousness awake!

(Chorus)
We will fence our nation with our bones.
If you show us your (hateful) sword
We will surely reciprocate in kind.

We will fence our nation with our bones.
If you show us your (hateful) sword
we will surely reciprocate in kind.

We will fence our nation with our bones.
If you show us your (hateful) sword
We will surely reciprocate in kind.

 

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International Religious Freedom Report

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Burma is among a number of countries singled out by the Unites States Commission on Internationla Religious Freedom (USCIRF) for religious intolerance.  The full report can be read here while the section on Burma is available above.

As reported in the Myanmar Times:

“Bigotry and chauvinism against religious and ethnic minorities grew more pervasive, in some cases provoked by religious figures within the Buddhist community,” said the annual report, which also blamed expanded access to social media for enflaming religious hatred.

In addition to condemning expressions of intolerance toward Muslims and a routine “disenfranchisement” of the Rohingya, the report slams Myanmar for targeting largely Christian areas, such as Kachin and Chin states where cross removal is a “long-standing practice.”

New Zealand man found guilty of insulting religion in Myanmar

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As reported by the BBC Phil Blackwood,Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin have been given two-and-a-half years hard labour for ‘insulting religion’ in Burma. The idea of blasphemy in Buddhism is highlighted by this case as the three were sentenced today:

A New Zealander and two Burmese men have been found guilty of insulting religion in Myanmar over a poster promoting a drinks event depicting Buddha with headphones.

Philip Blackwood, who managed the VGastro Bar in Yangon, was arrested in December along with bar owner Tun Thurein and colleague Htut Ko Ko Lwin.

They have each been sentenced to two and a half years in jail.

Burmese law makes it illegal to insult or damage any religion.

The poster, which was posted on Facebook and showed Buddha surrounded by psychedelic colours, sparked an angry response online.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has seen growing Buddhist nationalism in recent years.

All three men had denied insulting religion during their trial. Tun Thurein had also told the court that Blackwood alone was responsible for the posting. Blackwood had said sorry online and repeated his apology in court.

He told the BBC’s Jonah Fisher in Yangon before he entered court on Tuesday: “Hopefully a bit of justice is going to happen.”

But the judge, Ye Lwin, said that though Blackwood apologised, he had “intentionally plotted to insult religious belief” when he uploaded the poster on Facebook, reported AFP news agency.

Buddhist nationalism has been on the rise in recent years, with extremist monks such as Wirathu growing in popularity and increasing clashes with Muslim minorities, particularly in Rakhine state.

Some excellent reporting can also be found in the Deocratic Voice of Burma:’Buddha Bar trio sentenced to 2.5 years with hard labour‘.

Myanmar Detains 3 for Allegedly Offending the Buddha

Burmesemonks

A short article by Voice of America’s Gabrielle Paluch which appeared on December 15th. Thanks to Garielle for the interview which forms part of her excellent article.

Last week, Yangon’s V Gastro Bar displayed a flier on its Facebook page depicting Buddha in vibrant, neon colors, wearing large DJ headphones, next to the words “Buddha.bar.” It promoted discounted drinks and electronic music.

Authorities in Myanmar, also known as Burma, took note. They arrested the bar’s general manager, New Zealand native Philip Blackwood, and his two Myanmar business partners, Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin. The men now face charges under a law that outlaws words or images that deliberately offend religion.

The three, who are being held without bail, face fines and a jail term of up to two years. Days after being detained, they have yet to find legal representation because of the case’s sensitivity. Blackwood is scheduled to appear in court Thursday.

Rights groups say the law in question, Section 295 of the penal code, is unjust. It was the second most frequently used law to charge political prisoners in the past, according to “Burma’s Forgotten Prisoners,” a 2009 report released by New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Phil Robertson, the rights group’s Asia director, said the law is so broadly and vaguely written that it can be easily abused by authorities or religious extremists, and the government should consider changing it.

“Unfortunately, the practice and defense of religion has gone to a more extreme stage in Burma, and what we can see is the willingness of the government to misuse provisions of law that are broadly drafted to take advantage of that,” Robertson said. “What we’re also seeing is the effective criminalization of expression of views that go against some of the more extreme forms of Buddhism that are promulgated by the likes of the [anti-Muslim] 969 Movement and the mabatha.”

The mabatha is a newly formed organization of monks, who refer to themselves collectively as the Organization to Protect Race and Religion and are becoming increasingly influential.

Robertson points out that the organization has used Section 295 to justify discriminatory practices against Muslims, whom they regard as a threat to Buddhism.

Hours after V Gastro Bar’s Buddha flier appeared on Facebook, the image had been shared several thousand times on social media. It since has been removed from the original page, replaced with an apology.

Perspectives differ

While international observers have been perplexed by the outrage on social media, Buddhism scholar Dr. Paul Fuller of Britain’s Bath Spa University said Asian Buddhists take a different approach to Buddha images than Buddhists in the west.

Although outside Asia it is not uncommon for Buddha images to be used as fashion accessories or garden ornaments, such displays could be considered blasphemous in Myanmar.

“I think we’re seeing it more and more because these fundamentalist Buddhist movements are fostering a sense of Buddhist identity tied in with national identity,” Fuller said. “Buddhism has always had a very privileged place within the western romantic understanding. Maybe it’s time we see it for what it is – a religion with all its dark sides as well.”

Several other prosecutions under Myanmar’s restrictive 295 law have garnered attention this year.

Earlier this month, opposition party National League for Democracy member Htin Lin Oo faced prosecution under Section 295 for giving a speech in which he condemned prejudice and racial discrimination in the name of Buddhism.

In an excerpt of the speech shared widely on social media, he is shown saying, “If you want to be an extreme nationalist, if you love to maintain your race so much, don’t be Buddhist.”

Earlier this year, Canadian tourist Jason Polley was deported from Myanmar when a monk in Upper Burma photographed tattoos of Buddha on his leg and shared the images on Facebook, sparking outrage. Polley was not formally charged with criminal offenses.

Blasphemy and offence in Burmese Buddhism

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Published in the Democratic Voice of Burma, 14 December, 2014.

It has been widely reported that a New Zealand citizen, Philip Blackwood, has caused offence by using an image of the Buddha wearing headphones in the style of a DJ in a trance-like state. This image was used as part of a promotion for a bar in Rangoon.

He and two Burmese citizens, Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin, have also been detained. The three managers of the VGastro Bar in Bahan Township have been charged under articles 295 and 295(a) of the Burmese Penal Code.

Monks from the ma-ba-tha movement (The Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion) expressed outrage at what they perceived to be the misuse of an image of the Buddha. Some of the confusion in the reporting of this story is that blasphemy is not an idea usually associated with Buddhism. However, once we consider the idea of blasphemy being a credible and even prevalent notion in Buddhist culture, our understanding of this issue might be clearer.

There are a number of questions that arise from a consideration of these and similar episodes in Buddhist countries. There are also variations on this theme. For example in March 2014 Buddhist nationalists expressed fury at what they understood as the misuse of a Buddhist flag. Its handling was taken as an insult.

The Buddhist flag (sometimes called the sāsana flag) was designed by J.R. de Silva and Col. Henry S. Olcott to mark the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1880. One could say it is in some ways an American invention. It was accepted as the International Buddhist Flag by the 1952 World Buddhist Congress. It is part of what scholars would term “Protestant Buddhism”, a complex movement that is both a “protest” against (colonial) Christianity and a movement which adopts many features of Protestantism. The flag itself is an uncomfortable creation, if I can use these terms, involving many historical, political and religious ideas. As is well known, often superimposed on the flag are the Burmese numbers “969”, expressing part of Burmese nationalist ideals of nation and religion.

I would like to consider some of these episodes in which some sort of insult is thought to have been made against Buddhism. The offence caused to Buddhism through a perceived misuse of the sāsana flag does not so easily fit into this discussion. I cite the example so as to draw attention to different levels and types of sacred objects available to us when considering blasphemous acts in the Burmese Buddhist context.

Articles 295 and 295(a) of the penal code under which the three have been charged read, respectively: “Injuring or defiling place of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class”; and “Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”.

If we want to find a textual basis for these laws and the idea of blasphemy in the Buddhist tradition, one could begin with the “Five acts with immediate karmic effect” (ānantarika-kamma), often simply termed the “Five heinous crimes”. These are killing one’s mother, father or an arahant (enlightened one), wounding a Buddha, or creating a schism in the Sangha (Buddhist monkhood). A manipulated computer graphic of the Buddha cannot be considered as a “heinous” act.

Moving closer to recent events, a related idea is that of the sanctity of the image of the Buddha and other sacred objects in Buddhism. It is often assumed in modern manifestations of Buddhism that the sanctity and holiness of the image of the Buddha is a cultural accretion and one that is not essential to the practice of Buddhism. In this understanding of the Buddhist path, nothing should become an object of attachment. The material culture and religious objects of Buddhism have no real sacred value. If they were to become an object of attachment then the images would be a manifestation of greed and suffering. One cannot, in effect, insult a Buddhist. On a certain level, such an understanding is perfectly reasonable and can be justified.

The textual basis for such ideas is a famous passage from the Brahmajāla-sutta where the following is stated: “If, bhikkhus, others speak in dispraise of me, or in dispraise of the Dhamma, or in dispraise of the Sangha, you should not give way to resentment, displeasure, or animosity against them in your heart. For if you were to become angry or upset in such a situation, you would only be creating an obstacle for yourselves.”

There appears to be a relatively clear-cut message here: to become angry at misrepresentations of any type towards the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha will be an obstacle for those who take displeasure. Anger would distort the minds of those taking offence and this is far worse than the objects causing offence. This is all well and good as far as it goes. The Buddha certainly did teach a moderate path in which greed, hatred and delusion are the real problems. Those offending the sacred objects of Buddhism, such as images of the Buddha, should not cause anger to arise.

That the image of the Buddha is sacred and has very real power appears to be lost in the form of Buddhism practiced in modern, urban Asian and Western cities. The power of Buddhist sacred objects is part of what has been termed “apotropaic Buddhism”. This idea is often ignored in the modern understanding of Buddhism. The term “apotropaic” refers to object, texts and teachings that are regarded as having protective and even magical qualities. An image of the Buddha (which in a way is not simply an image, but is the Buddha, a surrogate Buddha, as it were), has the power to protect and avert danger.

And this is where the offence caused by the DJ-like Buddha image is lost on those producing such an image. The images are not only offensive to certain sensibilities but are primarily dangerous and inauspicious. The modern Buddhist might emphasise those parts of the Buddha’s teaching that focus upon notions of freeing the mind of all forms of attachment, including attachment to sacred objects, but miss other important aspects of Buddhism that emphasise the protective power of the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha.

Neither side is right in its emphasis upon these two aspects of the Buddha’s teachings, and there needs to be sensitivity on both sides.

Those using an image of the Buddha in a commercial way stress part of the teachings of Buddhism in which “letting go” and non-attachment are the central focus and then assume that the use of an image will not be offensive because the Buddhist is not attached to such things.

Most traditional Buddhists do not practice in this way. For them the stress is on protective and auspicious acts. Images, texts and chanting are partly concerned with averting danger. Primarily it is the Buddha (and images of Him), because of His great meritorious and ethical deeds, who accomplishes this.

Therefore, on the one hand, the manipulation of the Buddha image is harmless and surely the Buddha, being free from all attachment would not have taken any offence. In another sense the Buddha was not simply an ordinary person but someone who had strived for thousands of lifetimes generating ethical actions so that one day he could become a Buddha.

From an early point in Buddhist history His ethical actions were considered to have generated powerful qualities and it is this aspect of Buddhism which needs to be appreciated when considering the reaction to the use of the image of the Buddha in what is considered to be an inappropriate way. At the same time, those taking offence might also be prompted to reflect on the centrality of the idea of non-attachment and understand that their resentment is a hindrance upon the Buddhist path.

 

Dr Paul Fuller has taught Religious Studies at Universities in Southeast Asia, the University of Sydney in Australia and at Bath Spa University in the UK. His research interests include early Indian Buddhist philosophy and the Buddhist ideas of Aung San Suu Kyi. His book, The Notion of Ditthi in Theravada Buddhism: The Point of View (Routledge Curzon Critical Studies in Buddhism, 2004) explores the textual basis of discrimination and attachment in the Pali Canon.

 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.

‘Myanmar’s Anti-Muslim Monks’

I don’t know much about the makers of this short report, ‘Myanmar’s Anti-Muslim Monks’ but it contains some excellent interviews. The one with U Wirathu is worth quoting:

Our religion is not the only thing under threat, the whole country is. Just as they established Pakistan and Bangladesh, in the 2010s they’re stepping up efforts to establish an Islamic State in Burma. So the whole country is now under threat, not only our faith.

These rather chilling sentiments are followed by more passive and reasonable voices from within the Burmese Buddhist Sangha.