Buddhist violence in Myanmar highlights religious misconceptions

People wait for water at a refugee camp for Rohingyas, a persecuted Muslim minority group in Myanmar. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
People wait for water at a refugee camp for Rohingyas, a persecuted Muslim minority group in Myanmar. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)

A Pew Research Center polling study found that 35 percent of Americans believe that “Islam is more likely than others to encourage violence.” American popular society oft-holds binary viewpoints on religion: Islam is associated with militancy, while other traditions, such as Buddhism, get painted as a universally-peaceful alternative to mainstream religious exploitation.

8,000 miles to the East in Myanmar (formerly Burma), however, current events back a different religious reality. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority, has suffered strong violence and persecution at the hands of the nation’s Buddhist majority. Muslims have been lynched in periodic gang-attacks, which authorities have often overlooked due to most Rohingya’s status as “non-citizens.” Similarly, the UN Refugee agency categorizes approximately 514,000 Myanmar Rohingya’s as “internally displaced,” with many thousand members of the community undertaking perilous boat trips to refugee camps in neighboring nations such as Thailand.

“There’s no doctrinal base in Buddhism that can legitimately support mass murder crusades,” Charles Strain, a DePaul professor versed in Buddhist studies, said.

Rather, the issue highlights how, in Strain’s words, “the ideology disease can infect (all) religious and secular ideologies.” When describing the particular mechanics of the Buddhist-driven violence in Myanmar, he said, “It is people who are recognized as spiritual leaders who are (catalyzing) the mass riots, in which Rohingya have lost lives. The one percent can still stir up the other 99 percent of (common) religious followers. Monks are revered, and when they come out and exacerbate ethnic tensions, it can lead to mass rioting.”

Such ideological tension between religions does not necessarily arise out of religious textual encouragement. Rather, as DePaul religious studies professor Yuki Miyamoto said, “There’s always one rhetoric used in justifying (institutionalized) violence, which is ‘protecting ourselves.’ It’s not so much about interpretation or the text itself; it’s about people utilizing the sense of being threatened, of ‘having to protect ourselves.’”

Buddhist right-wingers — many of whom are, as Strain mentioned, considered religious authority figures — have often utilized such rhetoric in attacks, for instance, while scapegoating local Rohingya’s for local crimes such as rapes without the utilization of due-process.

As Miyamoto mentioned, it highlights the importance of nuanced Western viewpoints towards institutions — whether they be religious or secular.

“Think of nation-states and war; war is often the best mechanism to heighten people’s solidarity or need to belong,” Miaymoto said. “Japan used (rhetoric of preservation) even when they were the aggressor invading parts of Asia (in WWII), how their actions were ‘protecting Asian people from Western colonization and hegemony.’”

Such types of binary viewpoints “create these polarities,” Strain said. “Not only don’t they do justice to the religions of the West (such as Christianity or Islam); they create a romanticized view of Buddhists.” The opposite type of dualistic viewpoint could also occur in Southeast Asia with Buddhist directed blame, which would “ignore the examples of Buddhists worldwide that are disturbed with the Burmese violence … In no way is there a monolithic response by the Buddhist community.”

Nuanced understandings of religions, as they each believed, are necessary to understanding the actual sociological background causes behind human-rights issues, rather than dismissing them as results of “inherently violent ideologies.” Only with nuanced understandings can human rights situations be properly addressed, either abroad or at home.