In 2012 and 2013, deadly violence erupted in northern Myanmar between Buddhists and Muslims. Within Rakhine state, the site of the 2012 riots, the two most prominent ethnic groups are Arakanese Buddhists, who are officially recognized by the state, and Rohingya Muslims, who are not recognized and in official Burmese media are called “Bengali.” Time Magazine covered one of the more prominent instigators of the riots, a monk named Wirathu, on July 1st of 2013, as well as describing the rise of radical Buddhism in Thailand and Sri Lanka. Although it identified prominent Buddhists as leaders of the movement, the article used a prescriptive and dismissing tone, ranging from its naming of Wirathu as “Buddhist Bin Laden,” to its final admonition of the movements, saying “it’s hard to imagine that the Buddha would have approved.” (Beech 2013) By 2017, tens of thousands of Rohingya had been killed.
Dangerously, the way in which the Time article constructed its conception of Buddhist identity implied that violence is alien to Buddhism, and while it alluded to “religion under siege”, which is called dharmic decline and is the doctrinal basis for Wirathu’s movement, it failed to identify all the political, racial and religious factors at play. Because of the totality of Burmese ethnonationalism (the unification of Burmese religious, racial and national identity into a singular comprehensive ideology), the Rohingya found themselves alienated from Burmese society on all three fronts, and it is impossible to understand the ethnic cleansing that took place without examining each component of Burmese ethnonationalism and the ways in which they intertwine.
Rakhine State, where much of the violence in the last seven years has taken place, is primarily home to two ethnic groups, the Rohingya and the Arakanese. The Arakanese are majority Buddhist, and are one of the 135 taingyintha, or national races. (Cheesman 2017, 462) This term and the races it refers to date back to the colonial period, with non-taingyintha referring in the 1920s to the British, Chinese, and Indian people within Myanar who formed the colonial ruling class. The contemporary racial landscape of Myanmar, however, relies far more heavily on the Arabization of the Rohingya as a racial group. Exact history on the Rohingya is debated, but the date used by the Junta to establish the 135 races list in 1990 was based on whether or not the group was present before 1824, the date of British colonial landfall. (Gravers 2015, 3) The Junta argued in the 1982 citizenship law that the Rohingya were brought by the British from Bangladesh during the colonial period and are consequently excluded. Choosing to see Rohingya as foreign invaders and former colonizers, even if they are a persecuted minority, strengthens the narrative of nation and race being inextricably tied. The Arabization piece of Rohingya racialization reflects a more conspiratorial side of Wirathu’s rhetoric: conspiracies that racially Burmese people are being outbred and replaced by Muslims, that Rohingya violence is being funded by Arab billionaires hoping to establish a new Caliphate, and that Arabs control the UN. (Beech 2013) A common theme in Wirathu’s speeches is the threat of Muslim replacement through interfaith marriage, forced conversion, and extrapolation of birth rate data into a trend where Buddhists will be outnumbered by Muslims in the near future. Although it is framed as “defending Buddhism,” the racist overtones are obvious.
Within this schema of identity, Buddhism plays a key role both in Burmese history as an anti-colonial force and in its present. Buddhism and politics in Myanmar are close, as is demonstrated by the involvement of monks in the 2007 saffron revolution and the end of the Junta in 2010. Wirathu and other monks also enjoy a form of diplomatic immunity which insulates them against legal repercussions for their speech. Central to Wirathu’s speeches is the idea of dharmic decline. (Foxeus 2019, 677) The dharma is the word of the Buddha, as written 2500 years ago. As time passes, language changes, and the documents are lost, destroyed or reinterpreted, pieces of the dharma are lost, making it harder to reach enlightenment. Thus, argues Wirathu, protection of the dharma from non-Buddhists must be done at any cost, for without the dharma Buddhists are lost. This same argument was used by anti-colonial monks in 1947, as a justification for protests against British rule, however there is a distinctly nationalist quality to Wirathu’s arguments today. This is accomplished in two ways, by emphasizing the Buddha’s role and teachings of self sacrifice in defence of the home, (Foxeus 2019, 671) and by emphasizing the role of the dharma as creating order while highlighting the government’s role as the enforcer of the law and the defender of that order. Preserving order and preserving the dharma become goals that are unified in their cosmological significance, and are opposed by a unified threat, the ‘criminal, illegal immigrant’ Rohingya. (Gravers 2015, 3) The same way that the government legislates race as a part of national identity, Wirathu and other religious leaders prescribe nationalism as a part of religious identity, and by conflating the two Wirathu does not need to make excuses for violating Buddhist traditions of non-violence. A threat to Myanmar is a threat to Buddhism, and if Buddhism is to be preserved at all costs, then violence is acceptable as long as it is defending the nation.
Nationally, the Rohingya are stateless. Because of their classification as Bengali by the Burmese they were designated as not eligible for full citizenship through the 1982 citizenship law, and due to violence in Rakhine state many Rohingya are internationally displaced and considered illegal everywhere. The nationalist position espoused by the current ruling Union Solidarity Development Party is one of unified Burmese national, ethnic and religious identity. (Gravers 2015, 3) To be Burmese is a national identity as a citizen of Myanmar, an ethnic identity as a member of the 135 officially recognized taingyintha, and a religious identity as a Buddhist. Under this schema of tripartite identity, the Rohingya are not Buddhist, not among the 135 races, and not legally Burmese citizens, and through the lens of Dharmic decline and racial anxiety, must represent a threat to Myanmar. What the Time article identifies perfectly, however, is the public perception of Buddhism. By seeing it as “synonymous with nonviolence and loving kindness, concepts propagated by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha,” rather than as a living ideology, it sees only one chauvinist monk rather than a pattern of alienation approaching a genocide reliant on the devotion of its Buddhist actors.
Beech, Hannah. “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” TIME, July 1, 2013.
Cheesman, Nick. 2017. “How in Myanmar ‘National Races’ Came to Surpass Citizenship and Exclude Rohingya.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 47 (3): 461–83. doi:10.1080/00472336.2017.1297476.
Foxeus, Niklas. “The Buddha was a devoted nationalist: Buddhist nationalism, ressentiment, and defending Buddhism in Myanmar,” Religion 49, no. 4, (2019): 661-690
Gravers, Mikael. “Anti-Muslim Buddhist Nationalism in Burma and Sri Lanka: Religious Violence and Globalized Imaginaries of Endangered Identities,” Contemporary Buddhism 16, no. 1, (2015): 1-27
Parashar, Archana, and Jobair Alam. “The National Laws of Myanmar: Making of Statelessness for the Rohingya.” International Migration 57, no. 1 (February 2019): 94–108. doi:10.1111/imig.12532.
“The Battle Over the Word ‘Rohingya’ The Washington Post, April 29, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/04/29/the-battle-over-the-word-rohingya/
Thomason, Hugo. Birman Monk. June 27, 2013. Wikimedia Commons, Rangoon Monastery.