How Buddhism is used to justify violence in Myanmar

Four hundred thousand Rohingya have fled their homes in Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh in the face of what the UN Secretary-General calls “a vicious cycle of persecution, discrimination, radicalization and violent repression” by the Myanmar military. A humanitarian crisis resulted; the world is watching images of Rohingya villages reduced to ashes. Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar State Counselor (equivalent to a Prime Minister), Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former political prisoner, has received widespread criticism for what some call ethnic cleansing.

As a background: Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, gained independence from Britain in 1948. A military coup in 1962 ushered in decades of direct or indirect military rule. Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for fifteen of those years. Even today, civilian government has little control over the military state within a state.

As Jane M. Ferguson notes, one of the British heritages was the census and enumeration of peoples in categories, defining “the indigenous races of the land” as the Arakanese, Burmese, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, the Mon, the Shan. , and over a hundred others.

Rohingya Muslims, numbering perhaps 800,000 in a nation of 50 million, are particularly absent from this list. The Rohingya have been systematically denied citizenship and have frequently been the target of outbreaks of community violence. Peter A. Coclanis details this violent story, explaining its rise in the context of Buddhist nationalism, an ideology combining “Buddhist religious fanaticism with intense Burmese nationalism and more than a tinge of ethnic chauvinism.” Since the 1990s, radicalized Buddhist monks have expressed “an aggressive anti-Muslim message”. The anti-Muslim riots of 2001-2002 and again in 2011-2012 left tens of people dead and thousands of Rohingyas displaced by what Coclanis calls Buddhist terrorism.

The “first precept” of Buddhist thought, notes Alejandro Chavez-Segura, is “do not kill”. So how can Buddhism be used to justify violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka? It cannot be, he argues, stating that those who “interpret the Buddhadharma to justify the perpetuation of suffering through violence and war ”should not be considered Buddhist. While religion has been used to legitimize violent actions in holy wars, “no war is compatible with Buddhism, and ‘Buddhist war’ is a misnomer,” writes Chavez-Segura. Nonetheless, in Myanmar avowed Buddhist monks have led a “new trend which largely disregards the basic beliefs and practice of Buddhism.” As a result, the ethno-religious civil war in Myanmar took on a particularly ugly character.


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By: Jane M. Ferguson

Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, Vol. 171, n ° 1 (2015), p. 1-28


By: Peter A. Coclanis

Global Affairs, vol. 176, n ° 4 (NOVEMBER / DECEMBER 2013), pp. 25-33

Sage Publications, Inc.

By: Alejandro Chavez-Segura

Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, vol. 15, n ° 1 (winter / spring 2014), pp. 105-111

Georgetown University Press