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Mad Monks: Wirathu, Sri Lanka, and Diverting Democracy in Burma

By Jack Healey
October 5, 2014

The news out of Hong Kong for the past few days has had many of us watching the reports and videos that are coming out of the Occupy Central movement with admiration and anxiety. We have seen this before, with students and citizens standing up to demand access to the political process they were promised and which they deserve, taking places in nonviolent protest to draw a line for Beijing to not cross. There are no tanks yet, in spite of six armored personnel carriers having entered Hong Kong and heading toward Central from Shenzhen not long after protests began. But nobody can shake the memory of the Tiananmen Square Massacre and be worried about the fate of those participating in what has been dubbed the Umbrella Revolution. We support the desires and rights of those protesting and hope for the best. But we also remember the massacre that predated the one in Beijing, when Yangon streets ran deep with blood as the Burmese regime murdered thousands of its citizens in a day of fury that steeled subsequent citizens to wait to try for more access to their rights.

In 2010 elections were held for a new nominally civilian national government to be seated in the newly constructed capital of Naypyidaw. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest finally (though her National League for Democracy, or NLD, boycotted the election). Censorship was relaxed tremendously. Foreign journalists, scholars, and researchers were admitted on visas and removed from lists proscribing their entry. Political prisoners began to be released and there was great hope. Smaller by-elections were held in April 2012 and were swept by the NLD and other opposition groups almost completely. Aung San Suu Kyi, held in house arrest for the majority of previous quarter century, became a member of parliament and the world watched with joy as the nation finally seemed to be making strides toward freedom and real respect for human rights.

Everything changed with a new explosion of violence against the Rohingya, who were already perhaps the most oppressed people in the world. In early June of 2012, a group of Rakhine Buddhists sought revenge after the alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine Buddhist woman by Muslim men a few days before on May 28. They stopped a bus of Muslim laborers and murdered all 10c of them, thinking them Rohingya and responsible (they were neither). In the convulsions of riots that followed between the two communities over a hundred people died, over 2,000 were injured, and fourteen thousand were displaced. The vast majority of violence saw mobs of Rakhine Buddhists energetically targeting the Rohingya and the vast majority of death, injury, and displacement were suffered by the Rohingya. Lackluster or simply indifferent security force protections left the Rohingya communities (and later other Muslim communities throughout the country) open to repeated attacks and aggressions by Buddhists who claimed to be "defending" Burmese Buddhism against a plot of fundamentalist Islamists to overthrow the Dhamma and the replace Suttas with the Koran. Subsequently there were protests by robed monks calling for violence against Muslims, attempts to prevent even aid and medical shipments from reaching the camps (too primitive and lacking basic precautions to be official refugee camps) where most Rohingya had been corraled for what seemed to be detention without end. Even in the largest city (and, until recently with the construction of Naypyidaw out of thin air, capital) Yangon, people of South Asian descent from foreign aid workers to members of the Indo-Burmese Hindu community, have said that they are newly afraid at times if they fear they might be identified as (mistakenly or not) as Muslim. Longtime expats and native-born Burmans have said that they find the climate comparable to Berlin before the rise of the Nazis.

In the background of all this, sat the sermons of a Theravada monk called Wirathu (who does not deserve and will not receive the honorific normally preceding a robedbhikku) who sold recordings of sermons urging listeners to "defend" Buddhism and to push out the "Bengalis" (which is the name they falsely use on the Rohingya, along with the slur "kalar" and other terms intended to mislead or slur their targets). The thing is that the Rohingya aren't Bengali. They are Burmese. They were present in Rakhine State as far back as the eighth century and, while some came during the British Colonial Era from what is now Bangladesh (the Rohingya language is related to Chittagonian, but is not the same) but most were already there. Indeed, before 1982 the Rohingya were officially Burmese too, along with the other ethnic groups evaluated and approved or denied citizenship and identity status by the central government, always under disproportionate control by the Bamar or Burman ethnic group, the largest in the country. In 1982, under the wizard dictator Ne Win, the Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship and were subject to rigorous restrictions controlling their right to marry, travel, work, or reproduce, rules that were placed on no other group in the nation.

The (formerly military) real powers in the government seemed to be less interested than they'd claimed in moving forward. And after decades of playing from the British divide-and-rule book of governance, the message of Rohingya difference (coupled with the surge in Islamophobia after 9/11 in the United States was watched around the globe) sunk in as plausible with many other groups in Burmese society and the Rohingya found themselves with few voices to speak up for them. Even Aung San Suu Kyi herself gave a noncommittal statement saying only that citizenship should be decided according to legal means and that everything that happened in Burma should always be legal. So much for using one's liberty to protect others, it seemed. The frenzy for a new market has meant business doesn't much care about the human rights situation and the desire for another ally as a counterweight to China's influence in the region has meant that foreign policy cares less about abuses on the ground.

The voice for the Rohingya fell largely to the international community to advocate for their basic human rights and to encourage the provision of citizenship. It has been incomplete at best and largely a failure. The highest source of moral authority and advice for daily living hasn't, at least in the eyes of the peoples of Burma, been politicians for a long time. The political world may need obedience and is likely to be feared, but the voice of moral authority for average people is that which is spoken by the monks and nuns of Burma (and monks more than nuns). So we return to the dangerous attention paid to deceitful Wirathu and his ilk. Being the central and loudest firebrand advocating extreme measures to be taken against the Rohingya to "defend" Buddhism and to expel them from the country by force if necessary, further outbursts of violence have seen monk-led blockades of medicine/food and have involved monks associated with the burning of a school with children inside of it with "good Buddhist defenders" from the village outside ready to hack down escapees energetically. All this comes from a monk who has called himself a "Burmese bin Laden," though somewhat surprisingly after his transparently false claims of a real danger coming from Rohingya Islamists when there is none.

Wirathu is associated with the 969 Movement in Burma, an organization that promotes a Burman Buddhist-centered supremacy and the total avoidance of any and all businesses or interactions with Muslims as a minimal goal. Affiliating to a previously unknown degree with similarly hateful monks in Sri Lanka (who have been advocates for heavy-handed tactics at least and horrific human rights violations often) from the Bodu Bala Sena, a group of Sinhalese-supremacists who discriminate against all Others in that country. Tamils felt the bulk of their wrath as the Sri Lankan military conducted a campaign of total warfare to wipe out the Tamil Tigers and shut down their armed insurgency, but active discrimination continues against them and no credible investigations, much less reparations, have been made. There have been attacks against Christian churches and Mosques as well. Now, these two mad monks have signed a formal agreement to share resources to "protect" Buddhism and to specifically target others and to be prepared to use whatever means necessary to avoid the takeover of Buddhism by Islam (or, presumably, Christianity or Judaism). It would be comical, except for the trail of dead that these monks' followers leave behind. A formal alliance to "defend global Buddhism" between these these traitors of both Buddhism and human rights can only be read with concern and not support, for it can only be read as an attempt to retrench for further attempts to create violence.

What can be done? What can you do right now?

Speak out for the Rohingya. They need affirmation and policy changes that will hold Burma accountable for rendering a million people stateless and without recourse to any life of security or safety. The Rohingya have been left in a situation desperate enough that their kids knowingly set out to sea in incredibly insufficient boats prone to sink in the open water or they volunteer to be smuggled by human traffickers into Thailand to work years of unpaid slave labor on fishing boats to repay their smugglers. They need your voice. Demand that 969 monks in Burma and Bodu Bala Sena monks in Sri Lanka take off their monastic robes. From within the body of monastic discipline and traditions that govern the robed monks in Theravada Buddhism, Wirathu and his ilk have already forfeited the monkhood for themselves and have slandered the very thing (Burmese Buddhism) they falsely claim to defend when calling for more violence against Muslims in general and the Rohingya in particular. The prohibition against monks either committing or inciting murder is severe enough that it is one of only four conditions that mandate a departure from the monkhood. In fact, it is said that any bhikku guilty of such an infraction of monastic discipline is not a monk anymore the moment the offense occurs. Neither 969 nor Bodu Bala Sena followers are allowed to wear a robe, according to the patimokkha itself. These so-called monks, and all who advocate violence as a solution, can be considered to be neither monks nor Buddhist.

In Burma, the movement to create violence against the Rohingya is an attempt to influence the elections in 2015. The bulk of the current government is leftover legacy from the military regime and those with the most to lose with a real democratic transition. Attempting to draw Daw Aung San Suu Kyi into having to issue more direct support statements for the Rohingya, the dubious Thein Sein and his allies are trying to tap into pre-existing prejudice by the Burman/Bamar majority against non-Buddhist/non-Burman Burmese (particularly against the Rohingya) to turn the tide against the NLD. They are also attempting to draw attention away from the failure to address real and extreme deficits in basic infrastructure, education, healthcare, or other fundamentals of governmental responsibility. It can not be emphasized enough that this tactics are an affront to basic human rights and to any hope of continuing a real transition towards democracy or the protection of human rights.

Oppose violence on the basis of religion and ethnicity and support the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi in the 2015 elections in November or December of next year. All of these things can be passed on to all appropriate channels ranging from your friends, social media, your religious community as part of supporting religious freedom for all, and to your Representatives and Senators in the United States who can be asked to do so.

Contact your Representatives and Senators right now (click here for details on how) and ask them directly to speak out for religious freedoms and protections of all ethnic nationalities in Burma, especially the Rohingya. Ask them to work to support the NLD through the elections of 2015, and to support the subsequent government and all of its members to continue to speak up for the basic human rights for all peoples. Ask them too to push hard for the government in Sri Lanka to be held accountable for its violations of the human rights of the Tamil, Muslim, and Christian communities there with an independent inquiry by the United Nations and for neither Burma nor Sri Lanka to be allowed to sweep these concerns under the rug as they would like.

Buddhism is practiced by the vast majority of Burma's people, and likely always will be. But Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Jainism, Sikhism, and many traditional religions have been present as a substantial part of Burma's history as well. Burma is not a nation of only Burman/Bamar people and diversity is the rule as much as it is and should be in the United States and other freedom-loving democracies. All peoples are entitled to religious freedom, and the freedoms associated throughout the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Politicians in Burma don't get much respect for the work they might do in government. But as this newly installed and ostensibly civilian government settles in, everyone, from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to Thein Sein and the entirety of Parliament should be speaking up for the Rohingya and all of the peoples of Burma. Conflicts are returning or never stopped against the Chin, Kachin, Karen, and Shan and not just the Rohingya. Human rights are for all, and Burma's freedoms have been long fought for both inside the country and internationally that sought to increase freedoms and not to merely switch roles in a game of oppression. Let us move forward for human rights for all and to realizing the dream of the UDHR.

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