Burma, ethno-Buddhism, racism and religious persecution

I have written before about Burma (Myanmar) and its persecuted Rohingya population as well as the lack of interest both in the ASEAN countries as well as in the western mass media (see The other, invisible suffering of Burma, Rohingya Odyssey: a silent cultural genocide?, Rohingya Muslims and injustice: a security issue, Rohingyas: not solely a political problem, Selling lives: Rohingyas face deportation from Bangladesh). Since June, Burma and its Rohingya Muslim population have attracted a wider mass media presence. On May 28, in a village in the central part of Rakhine State, three Muslim members of the Rohingya ethnic group allegedly raped and killed a Buddhist woman. Retaliation did not take long and on June 3, a group of Arakan attacked a bus carrying Rohingya in southern Rakhine and 10 people were killed.On June 10, President Thein Sein declared all of Rakhine in a state of emergency, which gave the military exclusive authority to clamp down on the situation. Providing the military — which is exclusively Buddhist — authority in the region meant inevitably harsh repression and displacement of the Rohingya Muslim population, many of whom are now refugees in Bangladesh and in other states. Some reports, like this one, may provide an idea of the situation and the tragedy the Rohingya are facing.

It is rather interesting to notice, however, that this incident is incredibly similar in dynamics to the Anti-Muslim riots in 1997. Indeed, even in 1997, the Buddhist-Muslim rioting broke out in Mandalay over allegations that a Muslim man raped a Buddhist girl. In retaliation, Buddhist monks set fire to Muslim neighborhoods and the riots started.

Another important similarity is the political environment in which this riot took place: the perceived risk by Buddhist monks that their power could have been threatened. Similarly, today, Aung San Suu Kyi’s international visibility after her European trip and her official debut in parliament may be perceived by the Burmese Buddhist sangha as a real, and one of the most serious, threat to their undisputed authority in Burma.

There are several newspaper articles and reports that explain the current situation. I will not discuss the riot per-se here, but rather the deeper causes and dangers. Indeed, despite the many analyses we can find in the mass media about what is happening in Burma, I have noticed a lack of reference to a deeper and more problematic reality of the Burmese society which goes far beyond the horrible treatment of Rohingya. Very few readers, for instance, may know that all ethnic minorities and non-Buddhists are discriminated against and persecuted in Burma, often through an amalgam of ethno-racism  (skin color matters a lot in Burma, see for instance the use of the term “kalar” to refer to ‘black’ or even ‘slave’) and religious persecution.

To provide another case of discrimination and persecution of minorities and non-Buddhists, probably even less known than the Rohingya, I can mention the Christians amongst the Karen, Karenni, Chin and Kachin ethnic groups. As for the Muslims, they have been force-converted, their places of worship, as in the case of mosques, transformed into Buddhist temples, and they have been attacked during their religious festivities.

Like in the case of the Rohingya, many people in Burma reject acknowledging them as part of the nation. The impression is that today Burma is embracing western democracy more for economic convenience than as an indication of any real acceptance of what democracy is and I am unsurprised that a relevant part of Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic party fully support the deportation and discrimination of Muslims and Christians.

Many commentators in the west have argued for the alleged lack of division between Church and State in Islam and the consequent impossibility of real ‘secular’ (notice the difference between ‘secular’ and ‘secularism’) institutions. Buddhists in Burma (but see also Thailand) are surely less vocal in their opposition to the secular but are more effective in maintaining an anti-secular institutional structure.

Buddhism, or better the Burmese sangha, retains the real hegemonic power, even though indirectly (compared to Iran where the clergy is directly involved in politics). Whomever wishes to understand this phenomenon in Buddhism, should read Stanley Tambiah’s work ‘Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka carefully.

Monks are revered and without their support political life is impossible in Burma. Indeed, people who wish to engage in politics or simply wish to improve the chances of a better rebirth have to engage in an exchange with monks, who receive material benefits and enlarge spiritual returns for the current (read social status) and future life.

Through this process some monks and monasteries become increasingly influential and powerful. Hence Tambiah refers to such an exchange as a totalizing cultural system, including power, history and economy. Buddhism in Burma is a cultural space in which the tension between hegemonic power struggles take place, yet the space in itself is not challenged so that Buddhism is not just a religion or one of the religions but rather represents an ideology: the only one in which people can define themselves as Burmese.

In other words, Khun Sulak , in When Loyalty Demands Dissent, has correctly noticed

The difference is between Buddhism with a capital “B” and buddhism with a small “b”… When it becomes an institution, however, the church and state develop into something strong. You identify yourself with that religion. You identify with your nation. It becomes chauvinistic and exploitative. Sometimes it becomes capitalistic  (p. 257).

While the Burmese president told the UN that refugee camps or deportation was the “solution” for nearly a million Rohingya Muslims, Aung San Suu Kyi defined Rohingya ‘permanent residents’.  I have previously expressed my skepticism that Aung San Suu Kyi would change anything about the condition of the Rohingya (or the Christian minorities). The reason is that she, as a politician, has decided to work within the same anti-secular context as the military junta. In other words, Aung San Suu Kyi has to negotiate, as any other political figure, her real power with the same Burmese Buddhist sangha which in many respects fear her.

We have to notice that the link between Buddhism and nationalism in Burma is incredibly similar to the 1930s relationship that Fascism and Nazism had with Christianity in Europe, or Islam (or even Judaism) in Egypt and Palestine: only in this case the Buddhist sangha has the last word at least about the rules of the political game.

Hence, secularism, or better the lack of it in hegemonic or even counter-hegemonic positions in Burma, is the fundamental reason for that ethno-Buddhist racism which is expressed as religious persecution. Without a deep change in the habitus of the majority of Burmese Buddhist people, the president’s dream of a total deportation of the Rohingya may become reality.

Yet we know very well how other ‘final solutions’ based on the deportation of an entire population (also defined as alien) ended. Maybe during her visit to Europe, Aung San Suu Kyi should have stopped for a moment of deep reflection at Auschwitz.

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