What will U Wirathu say in Sri Lanka?

Wirathu

In an excellent article in the Democratic Voice of Burma Alex Bookbinder reports on the visit of the Burmese Nationalist monk U Wirathu (prominent in the Burmese nationalist and anti-Muslim ‘969’ movement) to the the ‘Buddhist Power Force’ (Bodu Bala Sena) in Sri Lanka. He is due to give a keynote speech on Sunday 28th September to an audience affiliated to nationalist Buddhist sympathies in Sri Lanka.

On the one hand, a Theravada Buddhist monk visiting and giving a lecture in a fellow Theravada Buddhist country, between which there have been stong religious ties for centuries,  should not deserve the most obscure footnote in Buddhist history. However, given the so-called 969 movements anti-Muslim rhetoric, and the similar arguments  by the Bodu Bala Sena, eyebrows will be raised. Are these monastics planning political participation:

In contrast to Burma, where monks are constitutionally barred from running for public office, a group of Sri Lankan monks formed the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), or National Heritage Party, to contest parliamentary elections in 2004. The JHU was a vocal supporter of Rajapaksa’s no-holds-barred assault against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, which ended the country’s 26-year civil war amid international condemnation and allegations of war crimes.

Political participation by Buddhist monastics is an extremely divisive issue. Should a monk be devoted to escaping from the cycle of existences, of which politics is a part, or should social injustice be envisioned as the one of the causes of suffering, therefore making it a legitimate target of Buddhist doctrine? These questions are brought into sharp focus by the dialogue between the Burmese 969 movement and the Sri Lanka Bodu Bala Sena.

It will be of some interest what U Wirathu says in Sri Lanka.

Edit: ‘Ven. Ashin Wirathu from Myanmar will participate in the Bodu Bala Sena’s Maha Sangha Council meeting at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium at 1.00 p.m. today (Sunday 28t/09/14).’ Reported Here.

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And some film of U Wirathu’s arrival in Sri Lanka:

 

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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.”

Buddhism in Burma and Sri Lanka: Ethnocentric Buddhism

Another short interview by Dr David Webster of the University of Gloucestershire with myself, this time about Buddhism in modern Burma. It appears on the University of Gloucestershire’s Video Resources for Philosophy and Religion Students.

I have previously written about the phenomenon of Ethnocentric Buddhism:

‘“Ethnocentric Buddhism” is a term I have begun to use to describe a particular phenomenon in the history of Buddhism, although I suspect it is not a recent one. The term points to the notion that Buddhist identity is intrinsically linked to national identity. It also denotes the idea that other factors will be apparent in creating Buddhist and national identity in different Buddhist cultures. For example, in Thailand there is the idea of “nation, religion and monarch” (chat-sasana-phramahakasat) and in Burma “nation, language and religion” (amyo-barthar-tharthanar). In both of these examples the idea of the Buddhist religion (sasana/tharthanar) is linked to other factors in the formation of national and cultural identity. Further, in both cases the defence of one’s religion is linked to these other themes of national identity — to defend one is to defend the other.’

 

 

On Buddhist monks proposing ‘interfaith marriage laws’

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There is some debate in Burma about proposed laws that would prohibit interfaith marriage. The laws have been proposed by members of the Burmese Buddhist Sangha. If passed, the laws would prohibit marriage between a Buddhist woman and a man of another faith, unless he ‘converts’ to Buddhism (I am not at all clear of how one ‘converts’ to Buddhism’).

The laws are being proposed on the premise that Buddhism is under threat from other religions. The ‘Interfaith Marriage Act’ is one of the ‘National Race and Religion Protection Bills’ that have been proposed by ‘Organisation for Protection of National Race and Religion’ (OPNRR), headed by Ashin Tilawka Biwuntha. It is clear from the context of the monastic debate that the monks wish to prohibit marriage between Buddhist women and Muslim men – it is then highly discriminatory with undertones of racism and Islamophobia.

There are a few obvious points that should be made about these proposed laws. Buddhism is a monastic tradition – it usually has little concern with secular affairs – and this historically most definitely includes marriage. It is commonplace in Buddhism to observe that there are no Buddhist marriage ceremonies. The monastics might in some ways ‘bless’ a couple after a secular marriage ceremony, and modern Buddhists might have replicated marriage ceremonies from other religions, but it can be stated quite categorically that the Buddhist monastic is not concerned with any type of marriage ceremony. It is this that makes the Burmese monastic debate such an odd phenomenon.

It needs to be stated that, traditionally, the Buddhist monastic is concerned with three things. First, the notion that all actions have consequences; that these actions are causing us to be reborn in an endless cycle of rebirths; and that, given the opportune conditions, the person should strive to end this cycle of rebirths which is pervaded by suffering. In short the monastic is concerned with Karma, Saṃsāra and Nibbāna.

What then is the concern of the monastic with laws prohibiting marriage between different religions? It seems to me that these are the questions that need to be asked by those protesting against the bills proposed by ‘Organisation for Protection of National Race and Religion’. It is reported that some of the monks are disagreeing with various organisations who dare opposed to the Interfaith Marriage Bill, calling overseas NGO’s ‘traitors‘ for their opposition. Clearly, this secular rhetoric is startling in that monastics are debating issues outside of their usual supramundane narrative of traditional Buddhist discourse. The mundane world (lokiya), of secular affairs has become disjointed and mixed with the supramundane world (lokuttara) of Buddhist preaching.