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Buddhist Radicalism

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The current violence regarding Buddhists and Muslims in Eastern Asia raises a number of issues, and shows the signs of an increased and ongoing problem. The state of affairs in places like Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka provide the perfect breeding ground for the slaughter of innocents in political and religious terrorist acts, many dying at the hands of the supposedly peaceful Buddhist monks.

In 2007, Buddhist Burmese monks led a string of peaceful anti-government protests that resulted in harsh police brutality, over 100 monks and civilians killed, and countless others beaten and detained. The protests, while sparked by the quick and unannounced removal of fuel subsidies, quickly became opposition to the junta in general and their poor handling of the Burmese economy. Years later, the tides have turned. The philosophy generally regarded by the world as having a peaceful and non-violent disposition is now are responsible for over 200 deaths and 100,000 displacements last year in Burma alone. While Tibet, Japan, and other nations have seen previous spouts of violence (some since the 1970’s), the viciousness of these have surprised many, and altogether the death toll is suggested to be over 1,000.

If not the degree of violence in the region, it’s the motives that shock people. Wirathu, head of the 969 movement that’s behind the violence, has been dubbed the Buddhist bin Laden. When it comes to the Muslim population of Burma, he states “they would like to occupy our country, but I won’t let them. We must keep Myanmar Buddhist.” Discrimination of Muslims is not new, however. In 1997, Buddhists took to the streets in anti-Muslim protest, looting and damaging Mosques. It was supposedly due to the rape of a girl by Muslim men, but it was later proven that never took place. In 2001, Buddhist joined with pro-junta forces, burning nearly 400 homes and killing almost 200 Muslims in Toungoo. A number were killed while they were in the middle of prayer. The Burmese regime, siding with the Buddhists, bulldozed the ancient Han Tha mosque, forcing Muslims to worship in their homes (as all other Mosques had been closed). One of the largest examples is the 2012 Rahkine Riots, in which another 150 plus Muslims were slaughtered. The uprising was again sparked by the supposed rape of a Buddhist woman by Muslims. The government has denied citizenship of the Rohingya Muslim people, and these, along with the actions of Wirathu, have been endorsed by President and former Prime Minister Thein Sein. This discrimination goes back extremely far, even during the British rule of the region, which was lost in the 1940’s. The Irrawaddy, a publication covering Burma and Southeast Asia, compared it to neo-nazism.

The rhetoric and tactics resemble those of radical Muslims in the Middle East. While it’s regarded as a jihadist tactic, Buddhists would certainly not object to suicide bombings, considering it was Buddhist activists who used self-immolation as a form of protest during the 60’s and 70’s. While Muslims have been responsible for a number of political assassinations for centuries, the origins of each individual group and organization, let alone the extremism in general, is often disputed. However, the issues remain political and religious in origin, and will remain so. The Buddhist violence has a similar air. Though not sectarian in nature, it has the unrelenting, cruel, and stubborn condition of Islamic violence and thought. Wirathu calling on fellow Burmese Buddhists to “sacrifice themselves to the Bamar race” also sounds along those lines.

While endorsing the discrimination of Muslims, Thein Sein has failed to halt military depredations or hold those who cause and inflame the violence accountable; in effect giving them free range to do whatever they please. Seins government has censored unfavorable religious publications and refused to allow the import of religious texts in indigenous languages. Over the past year, President Obama has announced a partnership with the Burmese government to help promote democracy human rights abuses (among other things such as global health and food security). In last month’s somewhat historic meeting between Sein and Obama, Obama states “President Sein has also made genuine efforts to resolve longstanding ethnic conflicts within the country, and has recognized the need to establish laws that respect the rights of the people of Myanmar…I also shared with President Sein our deep concern about communal violence that has been directed at Muslim communities inside of Myanmar. The displacement of people, the violence directed towards them needs to stop, and we are prepared to work in any ways that we can with both the government of Myanmar and the international community to assure that people are getting the help that they need but, more importantly, that their rights and their dignity is recognized over the long term”.
US focus is on Aung San Suu Kyi, the release of political prisoners, and more importantly the availability of foreign companies to invest in the country; it’s surprising the Muslim issue would even arise. Also considering Thein Seins previous statements and actions, it’s clear that regardless of what Obama tells Sein he’s “deeply concerned” about, the violence will be allowed in Burma and the surrounding country for some time. It’s now is on a slippery slope downwards into a long-term sectarian conflict that could engulf many nations. Parts of Wirathu’s hatred are directed at the US, comparing US military action to terrorism. This may cause problems for US business ventures in the region, causing the US government to take more action than they would in response to any human rights abuse. But one of the biggest lessons from all of this is that no religion or philosophy, regardless of how pacifistic it may be, is free from being twisted to fit a violent agenda by radicals.



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