My latest column in the International New York Times.
There is perhaps no religion that Western liberals find more appealing than Buddhism. Politicians fawn over the Dalai Lama, celebrities seek out Buddhist meditation, and scientists and philosophers insist that Buddhism has much to teach us about human nature and psychology. Even some of the so-called New Atheists have fallen for Buddhism’s allure. For most of its Western sympathizers, Buddhism is a deeply humanist outlook, less a religion than a philosophy, a way of life to create peace and harmony.
The Rohingya people of Myanmar take a very different view of Buddhism. The Rohingya are Muslims who live mostly in Rakhine, in western Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh. Early Muslim settlements there date from the seventh century. Today, in a nation that is 90 percent Buddhist, there are some eight million Muslims, of whom about one in six is Rohingya.
For the Myanmar government, however, the Rohingya simply do not exist. The government is conducting a national census; 135 ethnic categories are listed on the form. One ethnicity is conspicuously absent: the Rohingya, who the government insists must define themselves as ‘Bengalis’ (that is, as foreigners). ‘If we ask a family about their ethnicity and they say Rohingya, we will not accept it’, a presidential spokesman, Ye Htut, said recently.
The problems faced by the Rohingya are far graver than a refusal by the state to acknowledge their identity. Their very existence is under threat. Since 2012, there has been a vicious series of pogroms against the Rohingya. Villages, schools and mosques have been attacked and burned by Buddhist mobs, often aided by security forces. Hundreds of Rohingya have been killed, and as many as 140,000 people — more than one in 10 of the Rohingya population— have been made homeless. A report last September from the independent Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention suggested that ‘recent violence has moved beyond mere pogroms” and toward “the ethnic cleansing of entire regions’.
The anti-Muslim campaign has been led by Buddhist monks, who say their actions are in keeping with the demands of their faith. The principal anti-Rohingya organization, the 969 movement, takes its name from the nine attributes of Buddha, the six qualities of his teachings and the nine attributes of the monks. Its leader, a monk named Wirathu, has reportedly called himself the ‘Burmese Bin Laden’. Muslims, he told an interviewer, ‘breed quickly and they are very violent’. Because ‘the Burmese people and the Buddhists are devoured every day’, he argued, ‘the national religion needs to be protected’.
The extremist monk has proposed a “national race protection law” under which a non-Buddhist man wishing to marry a Buddhist woman would have to convert to Buddhism and obtain permission from the state. The proposal has won support from Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, and may become law by the end of June.
How do we reconcile the perception of Buddhism as a philosophy of peace with this ugly reality of Buddhist-led pogroms in Myanmar?
Continue reading in the International New York Times.