Redirecting Myanmar’s dominant faith to peace

The military’s persecution of minority Muslims comes out of fears among many Buddhists for their religion. Aung San Suu Kyi can help relieve those fears with a higher moral narrative.

AP Photo
A protester and Buddhist monk holding roses attend a Sept. 3 protest in Yangon, Myanmar, praying for victims killed during conflict and condemning the attacks carried out in Rakhine state, western Myanmar.

According to a global ranking, Myanmar (Burma) is one of the most generous countries in terms of donating and volunteering, a result of a type of Buddhism practiced by a majority of Burmese. Yet this expression of outsize giving is not the image of Myanmar lately portrayed by its military’s harsh treatment of the minority Muslims. Is there a way that Buddhists in Myanmar can extend their compassion to the people of another faith?

The simple answer is yes, at least according to the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet’s Buddhists. On Sept. 8, he said those persecuting Muslims in Myanmar “should remember Buddha,” who “would definitely give help to those poor Muslims.”

Yet such advice is still not being widely heeded in Myanmar. On Sept. 11, the United Nations accused the military, which controls key parts of the civilian-led government, of carrying out “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” against Muslims, who call themselves Rohingya. Since late August, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled the country. The latest exodus is the result of an assault by the armed forces after a new militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, attacked government outposts, killing more than 100.

Many of Myanmar’s Buddhists, who have long feared that their faith is in jeopardy, consider Muslims to be “terrorists” or a social threat. They make little distinction between the vast majority of Rohingya who espouse peace and the violent few who have lately turned to fighting discrimination and oppression. A few monks as well as the military have fed off this prejudice to create a brand of “Buddhist nationalism” that mixes the country’s religious and civic identities.

The solution, according to a new report by the International Crisis Group, is for Myanmar’s civilian government to reframe the place of Buddhism in a democratic society and to set forth a “positive vision.” This means that the civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and her National League for Democracy party, must offer a higher moral alternative to young people than that promoted by Buddhist nationalists. These radicals gain support by providing youth with “a sense of belonging and direction in a context of rapid societal change and few jobs or other opportunities...,” the ICG report states.

Many Buddhists in Myanmar see their faith as inherently peaceful and non-proselytising. But they also then see it as susceptible to oppression by more aggressive faiths, the ICG points out. This feeling is compounded by Myanmar’s colonial history and the rise of militant Islam around the world.

While Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi commands respect and support, she is widely seen as backing liberal ideas promoting minority rights without doing enough to protect the Buddhist faith. Dealing with the historical fears of Buddhists – even though they are more than 80 percent of the population – might help reduce their fears of Muslims.

“In Myanmar’s new, more democratic era, the debate over the proper place of Buddhism, and the role of political leadership in protecting it, is being recast,” the report states.

The more the government can give people control over their economic destiny, in other words, the less they will look to Buddhist nationalists or cheer military suppression of the Rohingya.

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