Violence and responsibility in Myanmar
By Matthew J Walton
After a brief lull in Buddhist-Muslim conflict in Myanmar, there are reports of renewed violence and unrest in western Rakhine State, where Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhines remain forcibly separated. A law that would restrict inter-religious marriage is gaining in popularity, while Buddhist monks associated with the 969 movement continue to preach anti-Muslim sermons.
At the same time, they rely on a particular interpretation of Buddhist teachings to deny responsibility for the violence
committed in the name of 969 and the protection of Buddhism. However, others have argued for a different interpretation of Buddhist philosophy rooted in the teaching of ''right speech'' and an awareness of the effects of our actions on others.
Many factors fuel persistent religious and communal tensions in Myanmar, including long-standing prejudice against Muslims in the country. Despite government pledges to prosecute those who contributed to recent violence in accordance with the law, Muslims have thus far been disproportionately sentenced.
Many Buddhists believe that Buddhism in Myanmar is not only under threat from Islam but are also frustrated by Western dismissals of this threat and the perception that the global community is demonizing Buddhism while only acknowledging Muslim grievances. While the plight of the Rohingya has received the bulk of international media coverage, Rakhine Buddhists have felt that their own conditions of poverty and denial of rights have been ignored.
Images of monks leading mobs in attacking Muslims and the ways in which this wave of violence could turn back the country's current political transition are no doubt disturbing. However, the brave and effective efforts of certain individuals and groups in defusing tensions and preventing the violence from spreading should also be acknowledged. It has taken time for the stories to emerge, but it is clear that there are still many people in Myanmar dedicated to inter-religious harmony and tolerance.
In Mawlamyine (Moulmein) city, for instance, leaders from Buddhist and Muslim communities met in contentious but ultimately productive meetings to debunk rumors and pledge to work with their own groups to limit extremist rhetoric. In other places, neighbors formed groups that would communicate with and support the much-maligned Myanmar Police Force to assist in maintaining law and order.
In the former capital of Yangon, one Muslim leader told this writer that he was able to call on groups of Buddhist monks who would immediately come to protect mosques or religious schools that were being threatened by angry mobs. A recent youth-led campaign has featured t-shirts and stickers denouncing racial or religious violence.
But while some Burmese citizens have responded admirably in restraining further communal violence, many of the factors that have enabled local tensions to be framed as religious conflicts still remain. Specifically, the 969 movement and its leaders and advocates are powerful voices in the country's politics. They remain visible and influential and at least one monk has been audacious enough to threaten elected officials who oppose 969 policies.
The movement's advocates continue to believe that its purpose is merely to defend Buddhism and that any violence is the responsibility of "others" who are defaming an otherwise holy symbol. The challenge in connecting the 969 movement to violence and making Buddhists realize its harmful effects lies in the particular ways in which many Theravada Buddhists (in Myanmar and elsewhere) understand action, intention and karmic effects.
One of the Buddha's primary doctrinal innovations was to fundamentally alter the then prevailing notion of karma in Indian religious thought. While the word "karma" simply means "action", the Buddha virtually redefined the term from ritual action to volitional action. The effect was to ethicize the concept, making intention central to the karmic results of any deed.
In some instances, intention itself is sufficient to bear some degree of karmic consequence. So, for example, simply thinking unwholesome thoughts will have negative karmic effects. Those effects, of course, are magnified by actually committing the deed. The important alteration in the Buddhist theory is the distinction between action in general and intentional action (the latter of which bears karmic consequences).
Among Myanmar's Buddhists, it is a relatively common belief that if an action or its result is not intentional there is no moral or karmic culpability. For example, in one of the Jataka tales (one of the hundreds of stories of the Buddha's past lives), a king and his advisors discuss the king's deeds and the merit or demerit that follows from them.
As part of his royal duties, the king has shot four ceremonial arrows into the air. He loses track of one of them and is concerned that it could have errantly struck and killed some living being. However, his advisors reassure him that since he had no intention to take life, even if his arrow had killed someone or something, he would not have technically taken a life. The implication is clear: without intention there are no karmic consequences.
The rhetoric from 969 spokespeople and the monks who spearhead the movement reflects this interpretation that separates intention and results through willful ignorance and denial. U Wirathu, the most prominent of the 969 monks, has vehemently denied any responsibility for the riots in Meikthila, Lashio, or other cities in Myanmar.
Similarly, Ashin Sada Ma, one of the monks who takes credit for creating the movement in its current form, has pointed to the fact that there has been no violence in Mawlamyine, the city where 969 had its genesis, as evidence that the movement bears no responsibility for the anti-Muslim violence that occurred in other places. In fact, both monks have placed the blame squarely on Muslims, alleging that they were the instigators of the worst incidents.
U Wirathu has claimed that he has consistently been misquoted by Western journalists, but there is ample video evidence of his anti-Muslim sermons. Similarly, many of the pamphlets distributed with the 969 logo contain what are in essence calls to arms for Myanmar's Buddhists to defend their religion and country. Yet even Myanmar President Thein Sein has pushed back against critics of U Wirathu and the 969 movement, echoing their denials of responsibility for violence committed against Muslims.
Employing the logic described above, U Wirathu can effectively separate himself from any of the results connected to his actions, denying culpability simply by stating that he does not directly advocate or commit violence against Muslims. When presented in an interview with evidence that rioters had spray-painted "969" on destroyed buildings in some towns, he made a clear distinction between what he saw as his intention to protect Buddhism and the violent actions of others who may or may not have been influenced by his preaching.
"I don't have any contacts in [the areas where violence occurred]," he stated in one interview, "so I have no idea ... In our community, the real 969 [campaigners] do not use violence." There are, however, cases where sermons by other 969 monks do appear to have incited an increase in inter-religious tension and violence; their denials of responsibility are equally rooted in a particular interpretation of Buddhist doctrine.
Buddhism in general, and the Theravada Buddhism that is practiced in Myanmar in particular, has a relatively underdeveloped social theory. The common Mahayana critique of Theravada practice is that it is self-centered, focused primarily on the process of liberating oneself from desire and suffering. Theravada practitioners usually respond by pointing out the futility and arrogance of believing that one can help others along a moral path without having first perfected one's own morality.
The implication is that ultimately each individual is solely responsible for the results of his or her own actions and that one person cannot be held responsible for the actions of another. This is not to deny some degree of interconnectedness, which is emphasized more in some interpretations of Buddhist doctrine than others.
But this reasoning is incomplete, at least as it applies to monks in Myanmar who continue to use derogatory language and dehumanizing metaphors when preaching about Muslims. Monks are almost always treated with respect - if not worshipful deference - in Myanmar, where their traditional role is to be moral guides for the Buddhist community.
Their sermons are understood as blueprints for proper moral conduct, and when these sermons are peppered with sensationalized rumors of Muslim violence or sinister plots to destroy Buddhism in Myanmar, their listeners (most of whom are still apprehensive and conflicted about the country's whirlwind political transition) take their words as reflections of the Buddha's teachings.
Additionally, in a world where a monk's sermon to 50 people can be recorded and quickly distributed to tens of thousands via DVD and instantly to hundreds of thousands more online, a monk like U Wirathu can no longer disassociate himself from the violence committed in the name of his movement or the nationalist ideals that he preaches. His awareness of the potential consequences of his words and actions (consequences that he appears to welcome, even as he insists that he is "non-violent") is enough to make him culpable in spreading violence despite his protestations as to his actual intentions.
It is thus well past the time for Myanmar's Buddhists to acknowledge the broader effects of their actions and not allow themselves or their leaders to deny responsibility for ongoing communal violence by hiding behind a particular interpretation of the Buddha's teachings.
Some Myanmar Buddhists have rejected the claims of U Wirathu and others that because their intentions are to promote the non-violent defense of Buddhism, their nationalistic sermons have nothing to do with Buddhists who attack Muslims. Most notably, the former U Gambira (one of the monastic leaders of the 2007 "Saffron Revolution" who has since disrobed due to government harassment and medical problems) has registered his opposition to U Wirathu and 969 by arguing that "what he preaches deviates from the Buddha's teachings''. More recently, some punk rock musicians have been vocal in denouncing what they see as obvious hate speech from individuals who they don't consider to be "real monks''.
Another way to respond would be for monks (the only ones with the moral standing to at least implicitly criticize other monks) to characterize U Wirathu's denials of responsibility as not only irresponsible but also as examples of ignorance that will ultimately compound the negative karmic effects of his actions.
Ignorance and evil
According to one interpretation of Buddhist philosophy, the worst type of action is committing an evil deed without an understanding that it is wrong. In the Buddhist text Milindapanha, a monk gives the example of two men grasping a burning hot iron ball; one knows that it is hot and the other does not. The one who knows will be more restrained in grasping the ball, trying to minimize the pain, while the other will grasp it with vigor and consequently will be more seriously burned. Thus acting from ignorance multiplies negative karmic effects.
An additional response could be to invoke the Buddhist idea of "right speech". The Buddha urged his followers not to speak words that harm others, as one element of his Eightfold Noble Path, a guide to moral perfection. Whatever the intentions, the rhetoric of the 969 movement undoubtedly includes divisive speech, seen in its advocacy for a boycott of Muslim-owned businesses, for legal restrictions that target Muslims, and for the expulsion of the Muslim Rohingya population.
Grotesquely abusive 969 speech has referred to Muslims as "mad dogs", while false speech has preyed on Buddhist suspicions and prejudices by spreading discredited rumors about Muslims. Speech that brings suffering to others is not part of a Buddhist's path and as such actually does violence to the very religion that the 969 movement claims to protect. U Wirathu's comments regarding the "real" 969 movement, as well as his pointed criticisms of other Buddhist leaders who he believes have been passive in countering the supposed Muslim threat, are examples of divisive speech even within the Buddhist community.
To be sure, the inclination of Buddhists in Myanmar to protect and propagate their religion is not necessarily something to be condemned. In times of relative peace it manifests itself as parents urging their children to follow the Buddha's teachings and in monks preaching that Buddhists ought to emulate the Buddha's example of tolerance and compassion in their everyday lives. But in times of transition and uncertainty, when insecurities are violently directed against others considered to be a "threat" to Buddhism, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to separate the positive implications of the number 969 from its destructive manifestations.
A strong reason to reject the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the 969 movement is the damage it has done to the international reputation of Buddhism. Myanmar authorities, both political and monastic, need to recognize hate sermons and anti-Muslim propaganda for what they are: not a benign "defense" of Buddhism, but acts that fan the flames of fear and misunderstanding.
Myanmar's monks and others who speak out against Muslims must be reminded that by denying the influence of their preaching on others they are ignoring the Buddha's teachings to practice right speech and be mindful of the broader impact of our words and actions on others. Myanmar's Buddhists should not only reject the hate speech of monks like U Wirathu, they should also reject the reasoning that allows him to maintain his innocence as Buddhists take his calls to "rise up" and "stand up for themselves" for what they really are: an incitement to violence in the name of religion.
Matthew J Walton is the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony's College, Oxford. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.