Stand up to hatred
January 20, 2015
Credit a top US diplomat for raising the issue of fast-growing religious intolerance in our region. Tom Malinowski, an official of the human rights office of the US State Department, made his comments last week in Myanmar. It was the perfect spot. It also drew the expected reaction: nothing. His message that hate and calls for violence were surfacing among some mainstream Buddhists in Myanmar and in Sri Lanka was overdue and bears strong repetition and opposition.
It is a sad fact that monks in these two countries of the Theravada Buddhist tradition have become deeply involved in violent events. In Thailand, we know that so-called "Buddhist nationalism" lies behind some, if not most of the recent religious riots in Myanmar. A campaign of hatred, unbelievable and unacceptable to true Buddhists, began first against the Muslim people of western Rakhine state, the Rohingya. Similar campaigns and violent attacks have been seen against the Myanmar mainstream Muslims, and against the Muslim community of Sri Lanka.
Last week, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, visited the country. Her brief covers all types of human and civil rights in the country. Ms Lee, a South Korean, has been generally positive in her reports about the new, politically "reformed" Myanmar. But monks in maroon robes did their best to make her visit to the golden Shwedagon pagoda as unpleasant as possible. They shouted at her, goaded the UN official, and proved their protest was planned and well-financed by displaying professional signs.
The real target for the wrath of the monks was the Rohingya minority. Monks have declared support for the Buddhist-organised 969 group. They have wrapped themselves, piously, in the sanctity of their own religion. The "969" name refers to the nine special qualities of the Lord Buddha, six of his teachings and nine qualities of the monkhood. From that viewpoint, they have assailed the Rohingya specifically, Muslims in general, and have directly caused violence by their hate speech.
In Sri Lanka, the parallel organisation is Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which translates from Sinhalese as Buddhist Power Force. A recent investigation published by the Financial Times says the BBS was formed in 2012 by "hardline monks", meaning anti-Muslim. As in Myanmar, speeches by BBS leaders have resulted in violence against Muslims and their communities.
A major cause for concern is that the leaders of the BBS and the 969 have come together. The FT report said the Myanmar hate-group monk Ashin Wirathu travelled to Sri Lanka four months ago. There he signed a pact purporting to promise "protection for global Buddhism". BBS co-founder Galagoda Gnanasara has recently been in Myanmar, fomenting the same type of hatred.
If the monks are misguided, acting in an un-Buddhist manner — which they are — the same, somewhat feeble excuse cannot apply to the governments. They have failed to take decisive action against those who directly caused murders and destruction.
In this, they can be accused of complicity in the intimidation and killing of minority people, those who are most defenceless in any country.
One hopes to hear more from Mr Malinowski, Ms Lee and other supporters of national and international civil and human rights. Buddhist leaders and right-thinking people throughout the region should already be condemning such harmful hate speech and threats.
Thailand, as a world leader in Buddhism and its Theravada teachings, could do more to combat such unacceptable actions. National and Buddhist leaders alike should remember that the actions of a few such hateful Buddhist "leaders" can hurt the image of the most peaceful religion.