Policeman patrol a village in Myanmar in March following deadly religious rioting. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win.)
In the West, Buddhism is often understood as a religion of compassion and peace, with gauzy images of serene meditation, the hum of chanted prayers, a symbolic lotus bloom. So what are we to make of a currently circulating video of a robed Burmese monk wielding a sturdy pole as he joins a killer mob beating a defenseless Muslim man to the ground? In the background, mosques and houses are burning and Muslim children are running for their lives.
Buddhism, a faith practiced all over the world, is marked by individualism, equality and concern for the welfare of the earth and all “sentient” creatures. But when it is harnessed to ethnic intolerance and extreme nationalism, it can turn mindlessly violent, as it has been and continues to be evident in Burma, now also known as Myanmar.
Buddhist violence, including lethal brutality against non-Buddhist minorities, is not a phenomenon confined to Burma. In recent decades, Sri Lanka’s ethnic tensions have been ignited and reignited by Buddhist zealots. As in Burma, they find sympathizers in Buddhist-dominated governments and the military. Only weeks ago, Sri Lankan monks were filmed leading a stone-throwing band toward a Muslim-owned clothing warehouse in suburban Colombo, the capital.
In the Himalayan nation of Bhutan two decades ago, fears that a centuries-old Tibetan culture and Buddhist monarchy were under threat from an influx of ethnic Nepalis led to large-scale expulsions of people who, officials said, could not prove they were citizens. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge emerged from an almost thoroughly Buddhist nation.
In Burma, missing from the reaction to the gruesome scenes of terrified Muslims killed and displaced are an unambiguous condemnation and moral leadership by Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father, Aung San, founded the Burmese army, with which she now works in transforming her country. While known around the world as an outspoken champion of democracy, she has now become a Burmese politician, careful not to take on the ethnic Burman Buddhist majority, the powerful monks or the military.
Monks were also fearless defenders of democracy, but the question that now arises is, Democracy for whom? Since the political transition began in Burma, monks have joined in attacks on Muslims first on the western Arakan coast, where stateless ethnic Bengali Muslims have settled for two centuries, and then more recently in other Burmese regions where Buddhists and Muslims lived together in peace.
After anti-Muslim violence broke out a year ago in the Arakan region (now also called Rakhine state) on the Bay of Bengal, Aung San Suu Kyi, an ethnic Burman and a Buddhist, called for adherence to the rule of law, but she showed no public outrage over the increasingly well documented assaults by Buddhist village mobs and monks against the Muslim population known as Rohingyas, many of whom were forced to flee in unseaworthy boats. An unknown number have perished at sea and many thousands, their homes and possessions gone, live in refugee camps.