Myanmar: Why is the Clergy Angry?

31 Jan, 2014    ·   4279

Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy tries to find answers for the violence in Myanmar and the role of monks in it

Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy
Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy
Deputy Director
A recent UN statement demanding an impartial probe into the killings of Muslims by Buddhists, in Myanmar, has once again brought the issue of the Rohingyas – widely accepted as the most persecuted minority group – to the fore. The alarming frequency, with which reports, detailing an unmistakable campaign of suppression of the community have been emerging over the past several months, is worrying. 
The clergy known for their non-violent values, have taken to violence in an attempt to rid the state of Rakhine, of the Rohingya Muslims. Why have clergy in Myanmar opted for violent means? Why is the government in Naypyidaw silent on this matter?

Increasing Islamophobia
The friction between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingyas began as a mild form of xenophobia in 1824. It has now evolved into a full-blown violent campaign of driving out the ‘settlers,’ who have now lived in the region for generations. Although, superficially, the issue appears to be similar to several other ethnic conflicts, the Rohingya issue stands because of the active participation of the Buddhist clergy. 
The primary force driving this pogrom is the rising Islamophobia among the clergy and the masses in the country. The paranoia among Rakhine Buddhists, of a potential Islamisation of the nation – as in the case of Indonesia and Malaysia in the 12th and 15th centuries respectively – is deeply entrenched.

While the core essence of Buddhism lies in its principles of non-violence, inclusiveness and flexibility, the applied measures of these principles vary from one school of Buddhism to another. While Mahayana Buddhism (as practised in Tibet and Mongolia) is more flexible and inclusive, Theravada Buddhism (as practised in Myanmar and Sri Lanka) is rigid in its structures. Furthermore, the attrition rate in the schools of Theravada Buddhism is high, with very few schools in practice in today’s world, as compared to other forms of Buddhism. This forms the basis of the thought in the country that their culture is under threat. Also, a threat from an ‘outsider’ is often perceived as more immediate and of greater priority to thwart, as opposed to a threat from an ‘insider’ (In this case, the ‘insider’ is the attrition rate).
However, this does not translate into the notion that some forms of Buddhism accept violence. 

Myanmar’s Fledgling Democracy: What Role for the Clergy?
Adding to the complexity of the issue is the role of the clergy in Myanmarese politics. A large section of the Myanmarese society comprises of monks, as many enlisted in monasteries to escape poverty and/or orphanhood, during the Junta years. The Saffron Revolution of 2007 doubled as a show of numbers enrolled in the monkhood. Having played a role in somewhat filling the void in the absence of a benevolent and accountable government, the Buddhist clergy holds a moral high ground in the Myanmarese society, and are seen as a powerful force. 

When tens of thousands of monks are taught non-violent means but are at the same time systematically made paranoid of losing their faith due to an onslaught of a completely different culture, eventually, regardless of the non-violent teachings, they prepare themselves to fight off the ‘enemy.’ 

Such a ‘non-violent radicalisation’ among the clergy in the country has effected in the shaping of a generation that is willing to inflict violence as offence as opposed to in defence that the religion essentially prescribes.

This does not automatically mean that all Buddhists are violent; but the recognition that Buddhist monks or not, they are human beings too – and they have the same emotions as the rest, is necessary. Once this view is recognised, it does not take long to understand the basic problem in Rakhine: there exists an ethno-religious conflict, and the side that currently has the upper hand is trying its best to weed out what they see as a problem, from its roots.

Silence of the State: Why does Naypyidaw not Intervene?
The Myanmarese government has its own apprehensions over the Rohingya issue. On the social front, assimilating these people into the country would mean earning the wrath of the clergy – which enjoys considerable clout with the masses – who believe their culture is under external threat. The economic costs of including hundreds of thousands of impoverished people into its citizenry would be extremely high. Faced with the daunting task of simultaneously improving the economy, democratic structures, public services etc., and tackling armed cessation struggles, their resource basket is heavily strained. For Naypyidaw, as long as the large Rohingya population is deemed as illegal immigrants, the government technically isn’t responsible for providing for them. 

Unfortunately, what seems to be unfolding in Myanmar is a plausible Faustian pact between the clergy and the political class – a deadly quid pro quo agreement that will only lead to worse days. What is more dangerous of the two, however, is the non-violent radicalisation aspect of this issue – an emerging but noticeable trend in South Asian ethnic conflicts.