The possible causes of Islamophobia in Burma

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On 21 August the Venerable Sitagu Sayadaw (Bhante Ashin Nyanissara) addressed the vising US commission on International Religious Freedom at the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy in Sagaing, Burma. Venerable Sitagu Sayadaw is one of the most prominent and revered Buddhist monks in Burma. After giving a personal reflection of the history of the various world religions, and commenting on how they have existed peacefully throughout history the Venerable Sitagu Sayadaw then gives his views on Islam. I have copied the entire speech here without my own comments. Many would regard this as hate speech. It must be stressed that these are the words of a very prominent Buddhist monk.

For those wishing to understand the reasons for religious conflict in Southeast Asia this speech could provide some strong clues.

There are six major Religions in the world today. Since Human beings came on Earth, people worshipped the Sun, the Moon and various deities. They also sought refuge in them on the basis of fear. It was called a primitive religion. Most of scholars stated that horror initiated the religions of those days. The Buddha also clearly said that the idea and concept of religions originated from fear. Therefore every religion has full responsibility for the removal of fear which is sticking on the mind of people. But, on the contrary, it is regrettable that a fearful religion and its followers emerged in the world. After the primitive religions there appeared Hinduism. And afterwards, Jainism also came out on the Land where Hinduism was being flourished. Forty years after the emergence of Jainism, there appeared Buddhism also. Buddhism appeared on the birth place of Hinduism and Jainism and peacefully coexisted with them for ages. There was no traceable history of bloodshed and conflict among them. Also there was no violence and quarrel even on the statement issued by the Hindus saying that the Buddha was an incarnation of God Vishnu. We had only oral and written arguments. Six hundred years after the Buddha, Jesus Christ appeared in the World. In the ten commandments of Christianity we find many similarities with Buddhism in the field of Morality and Noble practice. Christian missions tried to flourish their faith when they came to the East Asian countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Korea and Japan. The people of those countries were non-Christians. But, even after the arrival of Christianity also there was peaceful coexistence between Christians and non-Christians. No history of conflict can be traced to any side. Because all the Hindus, Janis and Christians are walking together on the common platform of their respective teachings, that is Morality, Loving-kindness and compassion. The religion, founded based on Loving-kindness and compassion, has no conflict and it does only social welfare services like Health, Education and other social infrastructures.

In Myanmar, many Christians converted to Buddhism in the past as well as at the present. They did it not because they were forced by the Buddhists. Similarly, many of Buddhists also converted to Christian faith. No single Christian threatened them to do so. They did it of their own free will. Every religion has and should have freedom of worship and freedom of belief. Look at the Crusade that prolonged about forty years. It was recorded in the history of the world.

We have to note that the beginning of conflict is aggressiveness and extremism either in the field of religion or that of politics. Today, in Iraq, the Islamic extremists are forcing ancient Zoroastrians to change their faith into Islam. They even threatened them to kill if their demand is not met. In Africa, a Muslim woman was given the death sentence just because she has converted to Christianity. Therefore, we, the East Asian Buddhist countries are living in constant daily fear of falling under the sword of the Islamic extremists. As we are lacking power and influence, we cannot compete against with the rapid growth of Islamic world.

There was a recorded history that in the thirteenth century A.D, a Muslim army marched from Turkey through India and destroyed Pala Buddhist dynasty and converted it into Islamic state. Pala Buddhist dynasty was none other than present Bangladesh. In the south of Philippine, the Islamic extremists revolted against the government for twenty years. Today, they established a Muslim state there. The Islamic extremists are holding weapons in the south of Thailand to make it a separate Muslim state.

Every religion, according to me, should perform its activities only for the good and welfare of the people. But, today, Islamic extremists are trying to establish Islamic states by waging war against non-Muslims. It is regrettable that they are performing the holy war (Jihad) on the name of God.

Myanmar regained its independence from British in 1948. They colonized Myanmar for nearly hundred years. Many Africans were imported as slaves when the United States of America was established. In the same way, the English rulers illegally imported labourers from India and Bangladesh to Myanmar for the hard labour during their rule.

There is also another bad consequence caused by English colonial rule. During hundred years of British rule, Burmese nationals were not formed as an army. But it was ridiculous that the English rulers administered Myanmar forming different groups of indigenous minorities as an army. When the British rulers went back to England, the minority groups revolted against the Burmese government. We cannot solve those problems until today. These are the natural sufferings faced by the colonial countries.

There is one more important thing that during the British colonial rule, many illegal immigrants from Bangladesh entered into the Rakhine state. In 1948-49, by the name of Mujtahid, those illegal immigrants revolted against Burmese army. Their intention was to establish separate Muslim state. Burmese army had to confront the Islamic Mujahidins. Today, they neither claim themselves as Bangalis nor claim Mujahidins. But, claiming themselves as Rohingars, they are trying to demand a separate home land. They also burned their houses by themselves as if it was done by Burmese Buddhists. We cannot compete with the Islamic world which is the second most powerful and wealthy. Islamic countries occupy the second largest portion even in the United Nations.

The mass media of today is also overwhelmed by the power of money. Most of mass communications such as radios and televisions are controlled by the Islamic world which has sound economy. As we are unable to fight against such a powerful media, the world is not ready either to believe or accept whatever we said. But, we were deafened by the loud explosion of the whole world when the Islamic world says something bad about Myanmar. It was the power of Islamic Medias that made the image and reputation of Myanmar bad. Therefore, we, as the Buddha taught, have determined to objectively care and protect our country and our nationality avoiding two extremes: favour and fear.

Honorable gentlemen – in conclusion, I would like to say that Myanmar is facing various problems and difficulties. Because it was under the colonial rule for nearly hundred years and even after the independence, it was fighting civil and communal war for nearly sixty years. Many organizations from abroad came to Myanmar with the intention of solving such problems. But, instead of solving it, we found that they sometimes made the situation worse and worse. Therefore I would like to request you to find a better solution for such problems. The next one, what I would like to say is that the Myanmar government is now trying to establish internal peace and stability with the intention of ceasing civil war and communal violence. At this crucial Juncture, some religious extremists are frustrating with provocative statements and actions. I would like to request you to give your hands in the process of solving problems and conflicts. A methodical approach is essential for the peace process. It is also necessary not to make things from bad to worse and more complicated. As devout Buddhists, we also promise that we are going to solve these problems without violence and we will do it firmly standing on the teaching of the Buddha, that is tolerance, forgiveness, serving society, sacrifice for others and rationality.

The entire speech is available here.

And in Burmese here.

The preliminary remarks by the United States Commission on Religious Freedom, following their 5 day visit to Burma is available to read.

Thanks to Dr. Maung Zarni who shared much of this material online.

Buddhist Islamophobia

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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.”

Mindful Sex

Mindful

Jeff Wilson has recently published Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture.

On the Oxford University Press website it is described as:

‘The first comprehensive exploration of the practice of mindfulness in America.Outlines how Buddhism influences and is appropriated and adapted by non-Buddhist cultures in the United States and elsewhere.’

Wilson also has an article published today on the oupblog called ‘Mindful Sex’. It describes the practice of and therapy leading to mindful sex – ‘the ability to let go of mental strain and intrusive thoughts so one can fully tap into sexual intercourse’.

He describes three categories of this movement:

‘The first category is the scientific discussion of using mindfulness to treat sexually-related problems in a patient or client population [….] The second category of works on mindful sex—those belonging to the self-help genre—take these impulses further. These books and articles are often written by medical doctors, therapists, and other specialists, but their target audience is mainstream North Americans without any particular credentials or connection to the health industries. As such, they reach a vastly larger audience than the medicalized mindfulness studies. Books in this category are no strangers to the bestseller lists, and these mindful sex promoters tout their expertise on impressive websites and through popular TED talks [….] The third category is spiritual applications of Buddhist mindfulness to sex. These are typically promoted by people without formal medical or psychological credentials who operate outside of overtly Buddhist institutions. They offer mindful sex as part of a package of techniques and perspectives for personal enhancement.’
This last category includes the wonderful ‘Orgasmic Yoga‘ and Wilson quotes Bruce Gether and his ‘Nine Golden Keys to Mindful Masturbation’ which I have to quote:

‘Mindful masturbation is a simple, yet powerful practice. It requires dedication, and becomes its own reward. Just pay full attention while you masturbate. Don’t let yourself get distracted by imagination. Keep your primary focus on yourself, your own body, your penis and your own sensations. This path of self-pleasure can take you into realms of ecstasy you have never before experienced.’
The irony of all of this is not lost on Wilson but he does make some very serious points:
‘What are the points that I want to make with all of this? First, North Americans use Buddhist practices to enhance their desires, rather than retreat from or conquer them. Mindfulness of the body used to be an ascetic monastic practice designed to eliminate sexual feelings and break down the erroneous sense of an enduring personal self. Mindful sex is a pleasure-enhancing practice designed for laypeople to rekindle their sexual fires, promote self-esteem, and variously lead the practitioner to mind-blowing orgasm, greater bonding, or perhaps metaphysical oneness with all.’
Wilson suggests that ‘Buddhism has been used for achieving these-worldly benefits more or less since its creation, be they faith-healing, safe childbirth, protection from harm, and so on.’ On this point one has to agree and perhaps reevaluate some of these practices and consider them in a new light.

 

 

 

 

‘Fascists’ in saffron robes? The rise of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist ultra-nationalists

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An article appears on CNN by Tim Hume called ‘Fascists’ in saffron robes? The rise of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist ultra-nationalists. Using the same footage of hate speech I used previously of Bodu Bala Sena general secretary Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara the article observes:

‘Then, his arm raised and his voice rising to a shriek, he issues an explicit threat to Muslims, using a derogatory term for the minority.

To roars of approval, he vows that if any Muslim, were to lay a hand on a Sinhalese – let alone a monk – that would “be the end” of all of them.

What is striking about the clip, aside from the viciousness of the rhetoric, is that the firebrand behind the microphone is dressed in the saffron robes of a Buddhist monk.

He is Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the Buddhist holy man who is the general secretary and public face of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, also known as Buddhist Power Force).

The ultra-nationalist Sinhalese Buddhist organization has emerged as a troubling presence on the Sri Lankan political landscape in recent years, and is blamed by many for inciting the deadly violence in Aluthgama.’

 

Buddhist monks caught riding on broomsticks

 

Monks

As reported in the Bangkok Post two Buddhist monks were caught on camera over the weekend pretending to fly, and seemingly race (or play Quidditch in the style of Harry Potter), on broomsticks. It is reported that the monks were pictured during a break from sweeping the temple grounds. The picture has since gone viral.

There is not much to add to the image aside from the suggestion that some find their conduct to be inappropriate. Going through the 227 rules of the Pātimokkha  (which govern the monastic discipline of the monks) it is difficult to see which rule is being broken. However, 26 of the minor rules (the 75 sekhiya rules) do suggest moderation, decorum and etiquette in monastic behaviour. For example: ‘To behave decorously when going to inhabited areas'(susaṃvuto antaraghare gamissāmīti sikkhā karaṇīyā). I imagine it is a question of the decorum of flying on a broomstick.

The Phuket News has reported that the National Office of Buddhism in Thailand are investigating the antics of the monks in the picture. Its director, Nopparat Benjawattananan is quoted as saying that the monks in the picture ‘acted inappropriately and lack discipline. The organization will identify them. They deserve punishment.’

Director Nopparat Benjawattananan
Director Nopparat Benjawattananan

 

The Dalai Lama urges Buddhists to stop Islamophobia

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On his 79th birthday, the Dalai Lama has urged Buddhists to end violence against Muslims in Burma and Sri Lanka.

In words evoking lay meditation in the form of advising those involved in conflict to visualise an image of the Buddha, he suggested that:

‘I urge the Buddhists in these countries to imagine an image of Buddha before they commit such a crime […] Buddha preaches love and compassion. If the Buddha is there, he will protect the Muslims whom the Buddhists are attacking.’

 

 

Riots between Buddhists and Muslims in Mandalay

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As  reported in the Democratic Voice of Burma and other news outlets riots have broken out in Mandalay between Buddhists and Muslims. They originated in a blog post by a blogger called Ko Di, a US resident who blogs with the name Thit Htoo Lwin:

‘The violence kicked off after a blogger, who writes under the name Thit Htoo Lwin (the Thit Htoo Lwin Blog), posted an article on 30 June accusing two Muslim owners of the Sun Teashop of raping a Buddhist woman, who he said was their maid…The story was picked up by several websites, and nationalist monk Wirathu posted it to his Facebook page.’ It has been reported that the wife of one of the accused Muslim men has said that they do not in fact have a maid. Whatever the facts behind the story, tensions are clearly high, rumours spread quickly on social media, and U Wirathu appears to have help spread the story on his very popular Facebook page.

The story itself originally appeared under the title ‘Sun Teashop owners, two Muslim brothers, raped a Buddhist maid’. The website is popular with Burmese and it seems that the story was completely fabricated. However, it quickly spread through social media. It is reported that Buddhist monks attempted to calm the rioting Buddhist crowd. Galoneni Sayadaw is reported to have said:

‘We tried our best, but they would not listen. Some of them were drunk and hard to control. Whatever happens to them depends only on their own behavior. We just don’t want to see Mandalay burn because of racial and religious hatred.’

It was reported on 2nd July that the the original blog post on the Thit Htoo Lwin Blog was taken down without explanation.

From M-Media:

‘It was not the first time of posting such fabricated news at Thit Htoo Lwin and it used to blog religious and racial hatred made-up stories and news, which might lead a sectarian conflict. For instance, on 18th Jun 2013, it posted fabricated false news, “Declaration of 2nd Jihad”, with a very clear intention of causing a sectarian conflict.

The founding blogger of the Thit Htoo Lwin Blog is believed to be living in the United States currently. He worked for several foreign-based Burmese Language broadcasts such as BBC, VOA, DVB from 1998 to 2006 according to Irrawady News Magazine’s interview with him.’

A great post has appeared on this entire episode by Kenneth Wong ‘Mandalay: From Mouse Clicks to Mob Rule in 24 Hours’