Resurgence of anti-Muslim Buddhist fanatics in Myanmar & Sri Lanka
by Ramtanu Maitra on 20 Apr 2013 13 Comments

Recent violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka indicate that some fanatics in the Buddhist Sangha, the community of Buddhist monks and nuns, have begun to turn viciously anti-Muslim under the pretext of being “nationalists.” In tandem, the Sangha are setting the stage for future anti-Muslim violence in both countries.


The policy of ethno-religious cleansing in Myanmar began years ago and has since incorporated a number of political leaders and military personnel; in Sri Lanka, the Sangha spewed hatred and violence against Tamil militancy during the1980s. As one analyst has pointed out, what is more disturbing is the news that in Sri Lanka, too, the minority Muslim community is now coming under intense pressure from a hard-line Buddhist monk organization allegedly linked to certain powerful individuals in the President Mahinda Rajapaksa-led administration [Asia Times: By Munza Mushtaq: March 22 2013]. If this report is accurate, such collusion could further enhance religious conflicts in Sri Lanka in the coming months.


Here is a typical report from Myanmar: “Buddhist monks and others armed with swords and machetes on Friday (March 22) stalked the streets of a city in central Myanmar, where sectarian violence that has left about 20 people dead has begun to spread to other areas, according to local officials… In the western state of Rakhine, tensions between the majority Buddhist community and the Rohingya, a stateless ethnic Muslim group, boiled over into clashes that killed scores of people and left tens of thousands of others living in makeshift camps last year”[CNN: Armed Buddhists, including monks, clash with Muslims in Myanmar: March 22, 2013].


And here is a report from Sri Lanka: A Sri Lankan court freed three Buddhist monks and 14 others suspected of torching a Muslim-owned clothing store in an attack that scaled up the country’s religious tensions. In the latest wave of attacks targeting minority Muslims, an angry mob of hardline Buddhists vandalized and set fire to the store in a suburb of Colombo, leading police to boost security for Muslim businesses nationwide. “The case was dropped because the parties (police and the victim) did not want to proceed,” a court official said, declining to be named, after the 17 suspects were discharged [AFP: Sri Lanka frees monks after anti-Muslim attack: April 2, 2013].


Anti-Muslim Activities in Myanmar


Buddhist fanatics, led by some monks, have long etched their names in blood in Myanmar. Their anti-Muslim violence over the years has been documented widely. The violence occurred under the watch of the self-imposed keepers of Myanmar’s law and order, the military junta. They held the reins of the country for decades while such riots were perpetrated. Earlier, such violent activity had been confined to one area, Rakhine state in the Arakan Hills where Muslims have settled over the years. Last year, however, it became evident that the Buddhist monk-led mob does not want to keep the Muslim-cleansing policy bottled up within Rakhine state. Violence against Muslims has been reported from Pegu, too, and there were widespread reports of monks involved in instigating the Muslim killers.


Following major anti-Muslim riots over the years in Rakhine state, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) has expressed concern and the international human rights crowd has condemned the wanton killings. In essence, the bureaucrats took over after the riots and those who lost their lives, and their living quarters, were forgotten.


However, the poison that the Myanmar military, Buddhist Sangha, and the West’s favorite democratic leaders of Myanmar including Aung San Suu Kyi, planted has spread. This month severe riots erupted again in central Myanmar at Meikhtila, a town in the Mandalay Division. Meikhtila, situated 540 km north of Yangon, has a population of approximately 100,000; of these, 30 per cent are Muslim and the rest Buddhist. Fierce rioting broke out in the town in the fourth week of March and continued for three days, leaving more than 30 persons dead, before the Myanmar government declared a local emergency, and deployed the Army on March 22, 2013.


The violence occurred despite a sizeable military presence at Meikhtila, by virtue of it being the location of the headquarters of the Myanmar Air Force’s Central Command and an Air Force Base [More Ethnic Riots In Myanmar: Disturbances In Meikhtila: Gautam Sen: IDSA March 30, 2013]. After visiting the devastated town, the UN’s top adviser in Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, told reporters: “There is no doubt much of this violence was planned. It seemed to have been done, in a sense, in almost a kind of brutal efficiency.”


Whichever local issues triggered those riots - and there are arguments over who started it - well-recognized Buddhist monks who pride themselves as Muslim-haters have come to share the limelight. Since then some violence has also been reported from Yamethin town on the outskirts of the capital city, Naypyidaw, and Myanmar Army patrolling has been intensified in the newly-affected areas [More Ethnic Riots In Myanmar: Disturbances In Meikhtila: Gautam Sen: IDSA March 30, 2013].


The riots have continued to spread as the bureaucratic jaunts began in full earnest. The UN Resident Coordinator on Human Rights and the Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General on Myanmar visited the violence-affected areas. And, as a follow-up to the earlier mockery, Thein Sein’s military personnel went into damage control. However, the “western proxy” (as one analyst describes her) Aung San Suu Kyi remained quiet, most likely because it is evident to her that it was some of her loyal and powerful followers who were leading those killings.


Neither her silence nor her followers’ role has gone unnoticed, although the western media continues to stay mum about the subject. The Hindu, in its editorial on April 4 noticed the silence of the icon of Myanmar’s democracy. It said: “Disappointingly, Ms. Suu Kyi, an opposition member in the Myanmar parliament, was quiet on the Rohingya issue; and she has made no significant public statement about the latest wave of rioting [Not this road, Burma: The Hindu: Editorial: April 4, 2013]. How could she? Here is how and why.


A Monk, a Killer and a Democrat


The kingpin in the recent killing of Muslims is a Buddhist monk and a representative of the Sangha. His name is U Wirathu, a 45-year-old Buddhist monk from Masoyein Monastery, Mandalay. Wirathu, describes himself as “the Burmese Bin Laden” and says his militancy “is vital to counter aggressive expansion by Muslims.” Buddhist fanatics call him “Sayadaw” (venerable teacher). But he is something more: He is also the machete-carrier for Aung San Suu Kyi.


Wirathu, who openly calls for cleansing Myanmar of Muslims, organized the “969” campaign to spread his venal philosophy. He was arrested in 2003 for distributing anti-Muslim leaflets and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. A presidential pardon set him free in January 2012 from the Myitkina prison. Since then, he has been spreading anti-Muslim hatred using his “969” organization. His inflammatory speeches were the sparks that lit the violence that erupted in the town of Meikhtila, where Buddhists and Muslims had coexisted peacefully for generations. Mobs of armed Buddhists, some led by monks, rampaged through Muslim areas for two days, destroyed homes, shops and mosques. A video that circulated on the internet in late March shows Wirathu addressing a crowd and declaring: “We Buddhists let them freely practice their religion, but once these evil Muslims have control and authority over us they will not let us practice our religion” [The Nation: Meet the ‘Burmese bin Laden’ fomenting violence against Myanmar’s Muslims: Posted on March 29, 2013].


Wirathu is not only a demented killer, he is also well connected. In the summer and early fall of 2012, AFP reported in their article, “Monks stage anti-Rohingya march in Myanmar,” that the marching “monks” supported President Thein Sein’s plan to expel the Rohingya. AFP referred to the leader of this movement as merely “a monk named Wirathu.”


However, Tony Cartalucci, in his Oct. 31, 2012, article, “Pro-Democracy” Groups Behind Myanmar Refugee Attacks: Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi Lead Ethnic Cleansing,” pointed out that Wirathu had led many “political street campaigns” on behalf of Aung San Suu Kyi and is often referred to by the Western media as an “activist monk.”


In March 2012, Wirathu led a rally calling for the release of “political prisoners,” so designated by US State Department-funded NGOs, Cartalucci said. George Soros-funded Human Rights Watch (HRW), in its attempt to memorialize the struggle of “Buddhism and activism in Burma” admits that Wirathu was arrested in 2003 and was in prison along with other “monks” for their role in instigating anti-Rohingya riots. Cartalucci noted that this would make Wirathu and his companions violent criminals, not “political prisoners.”


Aung San Suu Kyi’s association with this murderous group is not a recent development. In reality, the sectarian nature of her support-base has been back-page news for years. According to Cartalucci: “During 2007’s ‘Saffron Revolution,’ these same so-called ‘monks’ took to the streets in a series of bloody anti-government protests, in support of Aung San Suu Kyi and her Western-contrived political movement. HRW would specifically enumerate support provided to Aung San Suu Kyi’s movement by these organizations, including the Young Monks Union (Association), now leading violence and calls for ethnic cleansing across Myanmar.”


In a July 25, 2012, article, “Burma’s monks call for Muslim community to be shunned,” Britain’s Independent mentioned the Young Monks Association by name as being involved in distributing flyers, demanding people not associate with ethnic Rohingya, and attempting to block humanitarian aid from reaching Rohingya camps. The Independent also noted at the time calls for ethnic cleansing made by leaders of the 88 Generation Students group.


The 88 Generation Students group is synonymous with the long struggle for democracy in military-ruled Burma. Its name comes from the 1988 uprising, when troops opened fire on mass student demonstrations in Rangoon, leading to the death of thousands of people [BBC: Profile: 88 Generation Students: August 22, 2007]. Cartalucci also noted that “Ashin” Htawara, another “monk activist” who considers Aung San Suu Kyi his “special leader” and who greeted her with flowers for her Oslo Noble Peace Prize address earlier this year, stated at an event in London that the Rohingya should be sent “back to their native land.”


State-Condoned Anti-Muslim Policies: Myanmar


What has become evident to the world today has nonetheless been an ongoing phenomenon in Myanmar for decades. A section of Buddhist fanatics have long been spewing venom against the Muslims. In 2001, anti-Muslim riots broke out across central Myanmar, and several mosques, homes and shops were destroyed. Some blamed the monks as instigators, while some others saw the military junta’s indirect involvement in these violent acts. One observer pointed out that there were widespread accusations of military intelligence agents donning the saffron robes of monks. Most outside of Myanmar chose to neglect these violence acts; some conveniently claiming that the riots were a reaction to the (equally-insane) Taliban’s acts of destroying the spectacular Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.


But, it was no secret that the junta considered Muslims, who had been living in Myanmar for centuries, as threats and imposed a number of restrictions over the years. Some of these restrictions have been lifted since 2011. In an April 5 Asia Times article, “Racial hatred as policy in Myanmar,” Brian McCartan suggested that even if it was not the entire Myanmar military, at least retrograde elements may well be behind the recent anti-Muslim violence. In Meikhtila, the attacks on the town’s Muslim quarter were methodical, suggesting to some a certain degree of advanced planning. However, the organization is most likely to have been provided by ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups with no association with the military, McCartan concludes.


He also points out that the political and economic inequalities between the majority Buddhists and minority Muslims have grown during military rule as the generals, like Aung San Suu Kyi, who belong to the majority community and foster Burman nationalism. Now that political and economic changes are sweeping through Myanmar, some among the Burman want to position their community as the country’s foremost group.


State-Condoned Anti-Muslim Policies: Sri Lanka


While the anti-Muslim crusade is in a full-blown state in Myanmar, in Sri Lanka latent anti-Muslim emotions have begun to surface once again. During the last three decades, the Muslims were not in the Buddhist fanatics’ cross-hair because they had other fish to fry - the Tamils, for instance.


What triggered the recent anti-Muslim violence is contested. But what cannot be contested is the role of the organized Buddhist chauvinists such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). This organization moved right in to demand an outright ban on several Muslim practices, including the traditional dress code of women and halal dietary guidelines. Just days after pressuring the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), the apex religious body of Islamic theologians in Sri Lanka, into withdrawing the halal certification provided to companies in the country, the BBS is now targeting the traditional Muslim garb, including the abaya (long black cloak), niqab (face cover) and hijab (head cover) [Sri Lanka’s anti-Muslim campaign fuels discord: Munza Mushtaq: Asia Times: March 22 2013]. The BBS, which identifies itself as an organization that opposes what it defines as Islamism, Sharia law and Islamic extremism, intensified its campaign against Muslims in February, demanding the of the halal process to be outlawed.


While the BBS remained engaged in preventing the minority 9.2 percent Muslims from imposing Sharia law (how such a small minority could impose Sharia law over such a huge majority remains an enigma), local television footage on March 28, some of it posted on YouTube, showed a Buddhist monk bringing down a Muslim-owned store’s CCTV camera in front of a cheering mob outside the store, watched by at least four police personnel. Another monk was seen threatening a news cameraman who was later hospitalized after being assaulted by the mob. If the propagandists are to be believed, BBS had gotten itself into a tizzy over the mistreatment of Buddhists in Bangladesh.


One may ask what the Sri Lankan Muslims had to do with the Islamic jihadis in Bangladesh, or what Myanmar’s Rohingyas had to do with the Saudi-Pakistan-created Taliban destroying Bamiyan Buddhas.


One may also ask whether in Sri Lanka, as in Myanmar, a tacit alliance has formed between the anti-Muslim violence-seekers within the Sangha and powerful members serving the government? Munza Mushtaq points out that Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a brother of the president, has publicly associated himself with the BBS despite mounting criticism of the group. The BBS is also strongly backed by the Jathika Hela Urumaya, a partner of the ruling coalition [Sri Lanka’s anti-Muslim campaign fuels discord: Munza Mushtaq: Asia Times: March 22 2013].


The latest violent incident in Sri Lanka may seem surprising, but some point out that it is not. There had already been a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment amongst sections of the political class in Sri Lanka. The situation has yet to deteriorate to the extent that the default image of a Sri Lankan Muslim is one represented by an anti-Sri Lankan or anti-Buddhist element. But the trend that is developing is truly alarming and surely points toward such an inaccurate mental image [Of A Sustained Buddhist Extremism In Sri Lanka: Raashid Riza: Colombo Telegraph: October 11, 2012]. Riza’s report was posted in October 2012. One wonders how Riza would evaluate the recent developments.


What is also known is that the BBS, or their supporters within the Sangha, were involved in circulating leaflets in October 2012, the last paragraph of which stated that extremists should be struck down as they flee. “When cruel Islamic extremists prey on other innocent Buddhists, and when the entire world remains silent in the wake of it, it is time that we reawaken our race (Sinhala Buddhists) to respond to this” [Sri Lanka’s anti-Muslim campaign fuels discord: Munza Mushtaq: Asia Times: March 22 2013].


The violence in its ugliest form has not shown up in Sri Lanka yet. But there is no certainty that it will not, particularly if collusion exists between the BBS and Colombo. What needs to be remembered is that during the bloody civil wars in the 1980s between Tamil separatists and the Sinhala majority, monks were often instrumental in organizing and mobilizing people to defend their Sinhala identity.


Statements like “There is no Buddhist Sangha where there is no Sinhala race” were part of the battle cry to rev up fellow Sinhalas. Walpola Rahula, the internationally respected monk and scholar of Buddhism, proclaimed: “The Sangha is ready to lay down their lives” over proposed legislation to solve the ethnic conflict between the Sinhala and the Tamils.


In the view of these chauvinists, Buddhist teachings justified the war, which was fought to preserve Sri Lanka’s Buddhism in the future. The monks had strongly criticized the government of Jayewardene for what they considered his failure to safeguard the country in times of national crisis by inviting Indian military intervention. Sri Lankan political discourse labeled the Tamil Tigers “terrorists,” while the monks, who were closely allied with the JVP, were righteous defenders of Sinhala identity and Buddhist nationalism. Monastic militance even led to the murder of Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranasingha Premadasa in 1993 [Buddhism, violence and the state in Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka: Juliane Schober:].


If not curbed quickly, it is likely that the situation will get downright nasty. The fanatics, such as the members of Bodu Bala Sena, are planning to observe the 100th anniversary of 1915 Sinhala-Muslim riots and evoke anti-Muslim passions. On March 17, Bodu Bala Sena Secretary Venerable Galagodatte Gnanasara Thera at a public meeting in Kandy asked the Sinhalese to rise against the island’s Muslims, accusing them of converting Buddhists to Islam and treating Sinhalese girls and boys in their establishments as slaves.

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