The persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar is a horrifying spectacle to behold. The images of villages razed by the military and the hordes of Rohingya fleeing for their lives into neighboruing Bangladesh has stirred international outcry pressuring the government of Aung San Suu Kyi to take immediate steps to safeguard the human rights of the Rohingya people. Thus far, the Myanmar government has side-stepped international criticism of the atrocities taking place in the country. Instead, they have ramped up efforts to stifle media reporting on the crisis, arresting and imprisoning journalists on grounds of “national security” for filing stories about what is really happening.
As the unspeakable events have intensified in recent months, several writers have pointed out the persecution has been unleashed by adherents of Buddhism, the nation’s majority religion, against the Muslim Rohingya. Many suggest it calls into disrepute the putative reputation of Buddhism as the “religion of peace.” Several prominent atheist skeptics have posited the conflagrations in Myanmar and other predominantly Buddhist countries (such as Sri Lanka) situate Buddhism as just another form of demagoguery; one that advances a conformist identity and inherently excludes “others”. In that respect, so the argument goes, Buddhism is every bit as guilty as Christianity, Islam, or Judaism of providing a moral platform for zealotry and hatred of apostates or non-adherents.
It is a hard accusation to swallow, but well-taken. Though, if comparisons are to be made, one must point to the fact Buddhism lacks a scriptural tradition. In that case it is not as readily susceptible to the literal interpretations that have been used to justify zealotry of the sort witnessed in varying degrees among the Abrahamic religions. There is no Buddhist religious text that reads, “You must punish apostates,” as there is in the Bible and Koran.
However, there are plenty of old Buddhist teachings that can be wielded by unscrupulous teachers, especially in countries like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, to justify and impart bigotry among the sangha. Such teachers use their pedestal to cultivate sheep instead of free-thinkers, and incite their congregation of dupes to advance political agendas that have nothing at all to do with Buddhism. In that respect, Buddhism is every bit as susceptible to perversions that destroy its peaceful intentions and situate it in the disreputable company of junk-religion we see all over the world posing as legitimate forms of Christianity or Islam.
In public interviews with Western media, the Buddhist, Nobel Laureate Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has taken a page from Donald Trump’s handbook of moral duplicity to frame unspeakable events committed by her Buddhist brethren. When cornered by media about why she has not, in her role as State Counsellor, condemned the violence, she has said “there’s violence on all sides, believe me.” Her tepid, equivocal words in light of the persecution committed by swaths of Buddhist nationalists is a disgrace on several levels – ethically, politically, morally, and spiritually.
The very existence of Buddhist nationalist groups such as MaBaTha in Myanmar or Bodu Bala Sena in Sri Lanka is peculiar to any right-thinking, practicing Buddhist. It is obvious the good intentions that brought these organizations into existence have fallen into the wrong hands. Insofar as they lend an air of legitimacy to ideas that systematize fear, hatred, and violence toward those of other creeds, they are organizations of disrepute. In Sri Lanka, this strain of nationalism has led to the mistreatment of Hindu Tamils and Muslims for decades. In Myanmar it has led to sectarian violence and the systematic persecution of Muslims of all ethnic persuasions, especially the Rohingya in the northern Rakhine State.
The very notion of sectarian superiority flies in the face of Buddhist precepts, which are practice-based and decidedly humanistic. There is no sacred text or deity that, irrespective of the community of teachers and adherents, represents a metaphysical form of perfection beyond the grasp of human beings. This is what makes it so appealing as a spiritual philosophy to atheists, scientists, and humanists who see merit in the notion that true wisdom exists beyond the self-oriented grasp of pure intellect and ego and seek to explore the idea further. The Buddhist path to wisdom does not necessitate the abandonment of one’s critical intellectual faculties; inner peace does not require the Buddhist practitioner trade-in their well-honed faculty of judgement to adhere to belief systems fomenting wilful self-delusion.
It should go without saying the degree the ethical ideals extolled in Buddhist teachings are manifest in the Buddhist community are only as good as the wisdom, ethics, and discipline of the teachers and practitioners. This is true for any spiritual movement. If Buddhist teachers distort the teachings, the communities will reflect and manifest this perversion of Buddhist ethics. If the practitioners are lazy and undisciplined, the wholesome potential in Buddhist wisdom will go unrealized in the community.
The degree Buddhist precepts moderate the excesses of the ego and cultivate humanity’s wholesome potential is curtailed not only by dubious teachings of its precepts but to a much greater degree by adherents who are neglectful in their practice of its methods. For example, meditation is neither ceremony nor a mere religious ritual, but a “practice” that yields practical results. Meditation is not done as a sacrament to “the text” or “the God” but because it is a tried-and-true way to build the kind of self-awareness necessary for functional emotional regulation.
One cannot hope to exert a high degree of control over unethical attitudes and behaviours driven by strong emotions without awareness of the content of the latent, sub-conscious mental conditioning that underpins them. Every human being must deal with the fact of ego, with primitive emotional impulses and drives, and with the conditioning of a society that molds a mind with countless ethically dubious ideas. Most religions have moral precepts that compel a belief or faith in the judgement – or wrath – of a deity to compel them to detach from their affinity to immoral behaviours and attitudes. Buddhism has a method – not one that is god-given but self-driven – and it helps people achieve the ethical ideal, irrespective of what they believe or the degree of faith in an unseen chimera they exhibit on a day-to-day basis.
This is why it is mystifying to me how Buddhist tenets could become tropes to reinforce an ego-identity. It smacks of corruption in the teaching of its principles. Based on my own practice, the greater truths of spiritual practice are an acutely internal experience that cannot be “shown” or forced upon others; its manifestation does not lend itself to the shallow demarcations of an “identity.” The experiences point to something universal, infinite, but defy concrete explications appealing to another’s rational faculties. In other words, there is little point in proseltyzing since the thrust of Buddhism is practical, not intellectual. It requires not faith – an intellectual fabrication – but practice.
It is obvious those who tout such a thing as a “Buddhist nation” have perverted a central tenet of Buddhist philosophy: identity is a formless concept, a figment of the ego. Without being glib, we are all Buddhas, deep down. The idea a line can be drawn around a particular community defining those on the inside as parts of a “Buddhist thing” and those on the outside as separate, distinct “others” is absurd. If a lay practitioner tries to do such a thing it is up to a dharma teacher to discourage it as an ego-project that is wrong-headed.
In Buddhist philosophy, ego-identity is the sine qua non of suffering. The spiritual crux of Buddhism is to rid oneself of the trappings of the self-oriented ego that gives rise to feelings of dissatisfaction, hatred, and other emotionally unintelligent perceptions of reality. These are the misapprehensions that cause dubious ideas like, “Being gay is a sin,” that lead to violent acts of homophobia. It is counter to the essence of Buddhism to create a thing like a “Buddhist nationalist” identity that blossoms specious beliefs like, “Rohingya are terrorists.”
Certainly, the actions of the Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar chasing the Rohingya into Bangladesh refute claims that adherence to Buddhism (whatever that means) is a guaranteed path to peace. Their actions say less about Buddhism and more about the level of misunderstanding and lack of practice of Buddhist techniques throughout the country. They are betraying in stupendous fashion their immensely flawed humanity in the face of historic, acrimonious sectarian cleavages and revealing extraordinary distortions in the Buddhism they practice.
What Buddhists are doing to the Rohingya in Rakhine state is clearly antithetical to the Buddhist teachings. The fact there are a handful of Muslims who commit acts of terrorism under the banner of ARSA in Myanmar, or ISIS or Al Qaeda elsewhere, does not justify the persecution of all Muslims. The wholesome way to address radicalism is to extend compassion for the flawed humanity that draws suffering beings into the clutches of violent demagoguery. These phenomena are rampant in human history; instances where ignominious figures seize upon an upswing in human misery by stoking anger and resentment to incite violence in the service of an absolutist political agenda. Human beings are seduced into these tactics by fear, anxiety, and hopelessness; frightful emotional states we all experience in challenging economic and political times. The violent, provocative acts committed by a small fringe of any marginalized group are extreme, misguided outbursts of sheer desperation.
It requires profound wisdom and forbearance, but the Buddhist response to radicalism must focus less on the deeds and more on the causes of suffering that compel such radical acts of wanton nihilism. This is possible only if there is an unwavering willingness to see “others” as humans foremost, rather than to apply de-humanizing labels that cheapen the life of another being and justify our inhumane conduct towards them. The thing that unites “Hamas” with “The Zionist Occupiers” or the “Myanmar Buddhists” with the “Rohingya Muslims” is their common humanity – their shared desire to be safe and live free from needless harm and suffering.
It is difficult to fully apprehend this unless we see ourselves as we really are; unless we hold up a mirror to our own consciousness to understand its nature and habits of perception. In other words, we must meditate or engage in a similar form of honest self-reflection. Only then will we understand how we ourselves are more often in the throes of anger, rage, and hatred than we might otherwise acknowledge. Only then will we fully understand how a human being subject to racism and hatred day after day is drawn into violence and radicalism.
The reactionary identity politics and discursive rhetoric that shrouds the minds of the Myanmar Buddhist community with generalizations about the alleged inhumanity of the Rohingya is so obviously antithetical to the wholesome intentions of Buddhism. Rhetoric and dogma do not produce moral behaviour. Creating fictitious “nations” of adherents and positing outsiders as hostile “enemies” does not reflect a Buddhist spiritual community. The active practice of ethical precepts is required. To a degree, this is true of most religions.
It is a shame we have returned to a point in human history where individuals with corrupt agendas have seized the mantle of religious discourse and have used their pedestal to divide humanity for political gain. It is infuriating how leaders in many religious communities have wilfully condoned the insidious marriage; have placed their faith in an unwholesome arena only to become irrevocably sullied by it. The utility of religious doctrine in dressing up insidious political intentions in self-righteousness is utterly predictable, which is why wisdom dictates it should be avoided.
The atrocities in Myanmar beckons sensible Buddhists to get off their meditation cushions and counter the hateful narratives that propel these misdeeds with words that affirm the humanity of the Rohingya people and deeds that are consistent with Buddhist precepts of non-harm. It is obvious in Myanmar the lines between religion and politics have been blurred so badly the clarity of Buddhist ethics in this regard have been confounded. It is understood that Suu Kyi is afraid to speak too firmly against the persecution; that she fears angering the Buddhist leaders who rallied to seal victory for she and her NLD Party, and does not wish to risk a confrontation with the country’s powerful military for a despised minority. Perhaps she fears her countrymen will punish her for the audacity to suggest that it is wrong, either for a democrat or a Buddhist, to despise minorities of any sort.
I would suggest the solution is relatively straightforward: Aung San Suu Kyi must speak as the nation’s political leader and stand up for the secular rule of law, social order, and democratic pluralism. She must show “Buddhist nationalists” what democracy in action looks like and unbind Myanmar politics from the perverse brand of political Buddhism that has evolved in the country. She must also begin the process of getting the military under the control of civilian institutions, a lack which has blossomed countless armed insurgent groups undermining the development of civil forms of political dissent since the country’s inception. It is time to cease the tack of meeting political dissent with armed force. If there is criminal violence associated with the political process, the police and a functioning judicial system are the legitimate ways to address that in a democracy.
None of this requires a confrontational approach; that any group be shamed or concede defeat. Rather, they are principles that simply need to be articulated as consistent with democracy in a country with no experience in this regard. Myanmar citizens need a civics lesson and Suu Kyi is just the person who could have claimed the political and moral authority to impart the first lesson. It does require intestinal fortitude given the political, religious, and ethnic cleavages that have plagued Myanmar for decades. However, having spent years in confinement to win democracy for her countrymen, Suu Kyi has the legitimacy and the right to assert what fighting for democracy actually looks like. They may not like what they hear, but they didn’t spend decades in confinement to win the privilege.
It is profoundly disappointing to see Aung San Suu Kyi pandering to the chauvinists in her country. None of them gave anywhere near the same level of sacrifices as she to get Myanmar on the right political path. If anyone is owed patronage it is they who owe her. Sadly, she has done nothing to follow through on her reputation as a champion of democracy, which flounders by the day.
My hope and wish for the Rohingya people, and for the democratic future of Myanmar, is that she soon comes to her senses. My fear is that her shocking inaction is evidence that all along she was possessed of the same ethnic chauvinism and deference to the militarism of her countrymen; that her reputation was a self-serving falsehood, an idealistic projection of the Western world, much the same as our image of Buddhism as an inherently “peaceful religion.”
I hope Suu Kyi’s next actions prove me wrong in this. Not only is the world watching, but so too are her fellow Buddhists.